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Lac qui Parle superintendent: District does not take food from low-income students

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News Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR — The Lac qui Parle School District is listed in a report released this week as a district that would withhold a meal from a low-income student whose lunch account is empty, but that just doesn’t happen, according to Superintendent Renae Tostenson.

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Lac qui Parle Valley was one of three area districts listed in a report from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, which surveyed all but 21 school districts in the state. The others are Montevideo and BOLD. Those superintendents could not be reached on Tuesday.

This issue has been national news in recent days, after students in a Utah elementary school had lunch trays taken from them in front of their classmates.

Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday that he would include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget proposal to ensure all students have access to a hot lunch.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius wrote to all Minnesota schools, asking them to do what was necessary to ensure that all students had access to a healthy lunch.

A large majority of the state’s school districts, 94 percent, responded to the Legal Aid survey, which asked about how districts provide a hot lunch for low-income students who can’t afford the 40-cent fee for a reduced-price school meal. All students eligible for free or reduced-price meals receive free breakfast.

The survey report breaks down the districts into these broad categories:

- 31 percent also provide a hot lunch to low-income children, even if they can’t pay the fee.

- 54 percent offer a small alternative meal instead of a hot lunch or turning a child away.

- 15 percent have policies would deny lunch to students who are eligible for reduced-price meals.

The school districts were named only in the last category and included Lac qui Parle Valley, Montevideo and BOLD.

“We never keep a hot meal away from (free and reduced-price) kids,” Tostenson said in response to the survey. No elementary student in the district goes without lunch, either, she added.

It’s rare for families who receive reduced-price meals to have their accounts go below zero, Tostenson said. It’s more likely to happen with families that pay full price.

Students whose families pay for meals receive a sandwich, fruit and milk if their account is in deficit. The district allows accounts to charge up to $50 and will work with families that have trouble paying, she added.

The district will encourage families to apply for assistance with meals, but some just don’t want to do that, she said.

If lunch accounts are low, the school makes every effort to reach parents and may have conversations with high school students, too, but “we never ever do this in a lunch line.”

“We’re here for the families … and these kids are the most important ones,” she said.

BOLD Superintendent Jon Dotson was in meetings, and Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller was attending a conference.

The Montevideo district emailed a copy of the district’s lunch policy, and the BOLD policy is available on its website. Neither district allows a negative balance in lunch accounts.

The BOLD policy says families will be contacted and students will be reminded in the lunch line when their account level is low.

Montevideo’s policy says parents will be notified in all cases, but only senior high students are reminded in the lunch line.

Both districts say they provide a sandwich and milk for students whose accounts are at zero. BOLD’s policy doesn’t specify how long that meal will be given. In Montevideo, elementary and middle school students will continue to receive a sandwich and milk; senior high students receive the smaller meal for two days only.

Willmar Public Schools did away with charging meals several years ago and established the Cardinal Care Fund. Donations to the fund are used to provide emergency meals for children whose accounts have reached zero.

“We try not to let them go hungry,” said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. However, the ultimate responsibility lies with parents, he said. The district encourages people to apply for free/reduced-price lunches, too.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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