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Richfield High School threw out dozens of indebted students' lunches

Richfield High School's principal says the school 'absolutely failed' in throwing out hot lunches.

Richfield High School's principal says the school 'absolutely failed' in throwing out hot lunches. Google Earth

For 20-something students, debt is an exciting new menace that will stalk their financial lives for decades.

For teens, the concept is more immediate. Like maybe someone will throw out your lunch.

On Monday, something like 40 students at Richfield High School were served hot lunch only to have cafeteria workers yank it off their trays and toss it in the garbage, KARE 11's Breaking the News reports. Students with existing debts of more than $15 were then served a cold lunch replacement.

Can we stop for a second and acknowledge that $15 doesn't seem like a lot? Any amount of debt that might be solved by finding a single bill of currency left in a coat since spring is, by definition, not a crisis.

Though this humiliating punishment was not the first in recent Minnesota history, it was "inappropriately implemented," district superintendent Steven Unowsky tells KARE 11, and school principal Latanya Daniels says Richfield High "absolutely failed."

Under the proper procedure, indebted teens—read that phrase a few times and tell us how many billionaires there should be—would've received a private warning before getting in the lunch line or, alternatively, receive the lunch on their tray and be contacted later by a social worker or counselor. 

Daniels tells the station this is meant to be done "respectfully," and to give a student "the opportunity to bring in any amount of money to contribute to their balance."

In a statement issued by the end of school Monday, the district copped to its mistake, saying the practice of refusing hot lunch to kids who owe $15 or more was new to lunch workers, and the discarding of hot meals was halted before that day's third lunch shift. 

"Tables will be set up in the RHS cafeteria during lunch all week for students to check their account balance and ask questions of our nutrition services staff," the statement reads. Parents can also access students' lunch accounts online. 

Anyone looking to help financially can head to the school's "Sunshine Account Page," which allows for donations unattached to an individual student's debt. As of Monday, the district reported $19,669 in outstanding lunch debts.

That's it. Less than $20,000. In a district with more than 4,100 students enrolled and annual expenses of almost $114 million for 2018-19, $20,000 in lunch debt, counted in increments of $15 per kid, seems a little trivial, doesn't it?

Last month, DFL U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Sen Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) introduced legislation to fund three free meals a day to every student in the United States, as opposed to the existing threshold of 185 percent of the poverty level (household income of $47,600 for a two-child family). 

"Study after study finds that access to meals increases child participation," Omar said. "In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, no child should be turned away from a meal if they cannot afford it."