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Our view: Feed all students this school year

The news reports last fall were alarming. And more than a bit maddening.

Grownups, whether cafeteria workers or others, were actually taking lunch trays away from hungry Minnesota kids and dumping the food into the trash, because kids’ parents were behind on their lunch bills. Then, worse, in addition to punishing the wrong people, the students, many districts also were stigmatizing those students by stamping their hands as reminders to pay.

Imagine the shame and embarrassment. Imagine trying to learn while being laughed at or, perhaps worse, pitied. Imagine trying to concentrate through the distraction of a rumbling stomach.

And more than half of public schools in Minnesota were doing it, too, denying hot lunches to kids whose accounts showed negative balances, according to a February report released by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which surveyed 309 public school districts.

Here in Duluth — as well as in Esko, Hermantown and elsewhere among 30 percent of the districts surveyed — we were able to take heart that our school officials were doing the right thing by not stooping to shameful, hardline tactics; here, students were fed a hot lunch regardless of their account balances. Other area schools at least offered peanut butter sandwiches.

This fall — actually, just two weeks from now when classes resume in Minnesota — we’ll be able to take even more heart that students statewide will receive the healthy midday meal they need. That’s due to a decision by the Minnesota Legislature last session to invest $4 million in school lunch and breakfast programs statewide. The money also ensures 64,000 Minnesota kindergartners free healthy breakfasts.

Feed ’em first, worry about collecting payment later: It’s a trend that’s thankfully extending beyond Minnesota. On Monday, for example, Milwaukee Public Schools announced free lunches for all students, regardless of family incomes, through a federal effort called the National School Lunch Program.

Such new laws and policies to assure lunches for all students shouldn’t be mistaken by any parent with the ability to pay as a way of getting out of meeting their financial obligations. The bills still have to be paid. Individual families still have a responsibility to own what they owe. But until they do, kids shouldn’t be the ones to be punished and shamed. And their learning shouldn’t be hampered by hunger. Not this fall.