Commentary: Willmar Schools respond to lunch issue
There is much conversation happening right now about the Willmar Public Schools meal charging policy. Let us start by letting everyone know that Willmar Public Schools care about children. Our staff in Food and Nutrition Services work extremely hard to provide healthy school meals to children under all circumstances.
As a part of the district’s commitment, a free breakfast is provided each morning for all children in K-8th grades. Sometimes we find ourselves in the difficult position of a student in a lunch line that does not have sufficient funds in their account to pay for a meal. Federal regulation states that a school district cannot run a deficit in their food service program. This means that as much as we would like to provide a free meal for every student, the district simply is not allowed to do so.
Parents are contacted numerous times regarding a low account balance. In addition, the district always provides the opportunity for families to fill out paperwork to receive free or reduced meals. Our procedure starts with notifying parents when a child’s meal balance is under $10. If funds are not placed in the account after the initial letter, a second letter is sent home notifying parents that money is needed in their student’s account. During this time, phone calls reach out to all households with a low or negative meal balance reminder. If a child’s account goes into a negative balance, a peanut butter or cheese sandwich with milk is offered for a limited time. This has been our policy since 2006.
Where allowed by law and mandate, the district is committed to looking into ways to eliminate putting students in an awkward and potentially embarrassing situation due to account balances. In fact, over the years kitchen staff has deposited their own money into student accounts when they noticed they had a negative balance.
From September through January over 83,000 lunches were provided at the Willmar Senior High. Of those 83,000 meals, only eight children were offered the sandwich/milk option because their meal account had a negative balance.
The district established the Cardinal Care Angel Fund in 2009 for the purpose of helping families in need of meal service for their children until they can get a free/reduced meal application submitted and approved or for families who are struggling financially to sustain their student’s meal account balance. However, we as a district do not know if a family is struggling financially unless they contact us. Community members who are interested in donating to the Cardinal Care Angel Fund may contact the Food and Nutrition Services at 320-231-8526.
There are no easy solutions to the problem of students going through the lunch line having no means to pay for their meal.
Dr. Jerry Kjergaard
Willmar Public Schools