Deficit grew in first weeks of new lunch policy in Willmar
WILLMAR — In the first weeks of a new food service practice, the deficit in lunch accounts has doubled, from $150 to $300, in the Willmar School District.
The School District decided in late February to end a practice of taking lunch trays away from students whose lunch accounts were broke.
The Willmar School Board heard a report on the first few weeks of the change at Monday’s board meeting.
Also at the meeting, the board acknowledged donations totaling $1,475 to the Cardinal Care Angel Fund, which pays for student meals when needed.
In the past, the district provided a peanut butter or cheese sandwich and a carton of milk for students who couldn’t pay for lunch. That could have continued indefinitely for elementary students, but not for older students.
School officials at the time said they were following federal and state guidelines and had pulled just eight trays from students this school year, a tiny percentage consider the thousands of meals served each day in the district of 4,100 students.
The district now provides a hot lunch for all students and uses the Cardinal Care Angel Fund to pay for meals.
The fund was previously used to provide meals in emergency situations, when a family with a hardship was awaiting approval for free or reduced-price meals.
The fund is now a loan program, in addition to an emergency fund, said Nutritional Director Annette Derouin.
The fund is reimbursed first when families send money for their children’s meal accounts.
At the meeting Monday, board Chairman Mike Carlson said he had learned through this issue that the food service policies were separate from formal board policies. He and other board members said they felt the public had been confused about who set the food service policies.
Business and Finance Director Pam Harrington agreed that the board’s policies don’t address food service operation, but “that doesn’t mean it’s not your issue.”
The district is required to have guidelines for charging meals and the Minnesota Department of Education looks at the guidelines “to make sure we’re not operating in the red,” Derouin said.
While the deficit is relatively small at this point, her concern is that it could grow larger over time, she added.
The staff is also spending more time with principals and social workers, trying to contact families and keep accounts up to date, she said.
Some Willmar parents had criticized the school district’s system. Each student has a separate meal account, and if a family sends a check for meal accounts, it is distributed equally between the children in the family. In a letter to the editor, a Willmar parent complained that one child had a tray taken away for having no money in his lunch account, while two siblings had a total of $80 available.
Board member Linda Mathiasen asked if it would be possible to have family accounts or if notices to families could be tailored to tell a family which child’s lunch account is out of money.
Derouin said the current notification system doesn’t allow for family accounts or for individual notifications.
Parents that want money divided unequally between their children’s accounts need to notify the district, she said. Otherwise, it will be divided evenly. “It’s not for us to decide” how to divide the lunch account money between family members, she added.
The district’s former practice and its impact came to light when a student contacted the West Central Tribune in mid-February about seeing a cashier at the high school take a lunch tray from a student. A follow-up question on the newspaper’s Facebook page drew dozens of responses.
Over the following 10 days, in response to Tribune stories, the Facebook page clocked more than 23,000 page views and drew several hundred comments. People told stories of their children having trays taken. Other wrote of the humiliation they’d felt when it had happened to them. Others believe food should be taken from children because their parents hadn’t put money in their accounts. Many also criticized the parents who didn’t keep their children’s meal accounts up to date.
To donate to the Cardinal Care Angel Fund to pay for student meals, send a check to Willmar Public Schools, Attention: Food Service, 611 Fifth St. S.W., Willmar MN 56201 or call 231-8526.