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School Apologizes After Taking Hot Lunch From Students With Lunch Debt

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Officials at a Minnesota high school apologized after hot lunches were taken from students found to have lunch debt on Monday. Members of Richfield High School's nutrition services staff had removed hot lunches from the trays of students with a lunch debt of $15 or more, replacing them with a cold lunch option.

"Our district does not condone the throwing away of student lunches," a spokesperson for Richfield Public Schools tells Romper. "It is not our policy or our practice. What happened was a mistake and it was stopped as soon as school administrators were made aware of the situation."

Up to 40 students at Richfield High School had their hot lunch taken and tossed in the trash by nutrition services staff on Monday when they went to check out with their meal at the cafeteria register, local Minnesota broadcaster KARE 11 reported. In place of their hot lunch, students were reportedly given a cold lunch and notice of their outstanding debt. Video of students having their hot lunch taken and trashed was shared on social media, KARE 11 reported.

In a statement released on Facebook, Richfield Public Schools acknowledged that providing "an alternate lunch" to students who have a meal balance of $15 or more was an existing practice. However, they said that practice had not been implemented in a way that was consistent with the school's guidelines and values when students saw their hot lunches publicly removed from their trays while in the lunch line.

"We deeply regret our actions today and the embarrassment that it caused several of our students," the statement reads. "We have met with some of the students involved and apologized to them."

A spokesperson for Richfield Public Schools tells Romper that student meal debt is meant to be "handled privately with the student, generally by the school counselor or social worker" and not in the middle of the lunch line. "Students should never have their meals taken from them," the spokesperson tells Romper.

While a debt of $15 hardly sounds like reason enough to replace a hot meal with a saran-wrapped cold sandwich, Richfield Public Schools tells Romper the district has more than $19,699 in outstanding student lunch debt. (Debt you can help students' families eliminate with a donation to the district's Sunshine Account.)

In an effort to stop such public lunch shaming, Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Ilhan Omar have introduced the No Shame at School Act. If passed, NBC reported the bill would bar schools from publicly identifying students with meal debt in any way, including publishing lists of students names, or giving them hand stamps or wristbands as reminders of their unpaid balances. The bill would also make more students eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals and enable schools to be retroactively paid for a student's meals when the student qualifies for free or reduced-cost meals after the start of the school year.

Richfield Public Schools tells Romper the district is viewing what happened Monday at Richfield High School to be "a system failure" rather than the fault of one single person. "We have met with nutrition services staff at all of our schools to ensure they fully understand the policy and how it is to be enforced," a spokesperson tells Romper. "We are working as a team to make this right."