Willmar student saw another’s lunch taken away, bought it for him
WILLMAR — Maddie Stenglein was standing in line to get a cheeseburger for lunch Wednesday at Willmar Senior High when she saw a “lunch lady” take a tray out of a boy’s hands and set it aside.
Stenglein, 17, said she didn’t know the boy, but she could tell he was embarrassed. As the boy walked away, she picked up a bottle of water for herself and told the cashier she would pay for his lunch.
She took it to the table where the boy was sitting — “his face was red, he was staring down at the table, and he wouldn’t talk to anybody.” He was surprised when she put the tray in front of him, and he thanked her twice.
Stenglein said she’s seen trays taken before, “but it’s the first time I was actually standing right there.” Her friends thought it was sweet, and her parents were proud of her, though her mom wished she would have eaten something herself, too.
“I wasn’t that hungry anyway,” she said. “I didn’t really think about it; I just felt really bad and embarrassed for him.” With the urging of her family, Stenglein contacted the West Central Tribune. Her letter to the editor (The truth on school lunches in Willmar) was published on Feb. 15.
That incident was one of eight times this school year that food service workers have taken lunch trays from Senior High students, said Annette Derouin, food and nutrition director for schools in Willmar, New London-Spicer and Montevideo school districts and for Community Christian School in Willmar.
“We are all about feeding kids,” she said Friday. “We do everything we can to feed children.” However, families sometimes fail to respond to repeated warnings that children’s meal accounts are empty.
The district finally reaches a point where it can’t afford to let families go into debt they can’t afford to pay, she said.
“It’s not quite as easy as people think it is,” said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard.
No one likes taking trays from kids, he said. Derouin’s eyes get watery when she thinks and talks about it.
Derouin said the food service program follows state and federal guidelines in charging for lunches and not allowing deficit accounts.
The district tries to provide lots of information for kids and families, she said. They get letters explaining the lunch account system before school starts and urging anyone who might be eligible to apply for free or reduced-price lunches. Those applications are accepted throughout the year.
Parents are contacted repeatedly when a lunch account nears a zero balance. That includes phone calls, emails and notes sent home.
If parents are struggling but making an effort to pay, “we are not going to deny food,” she said. “We work with families, too.”
The district has a Cardinal Care Fund that accepts donations to cover meals in emergency situations. Students whose lunch accounts are empty are offered a sandwich and milk at the district’s expense.
Derouin said the district policy says elementary students can receive the sandwich/milk meal for three days, but it can go on longer if necessary. High school students are offered the alternative for one day, and most don’t accept it when offered.
Administrators are asked to keep an eye out for students whose lunch accounts are emptying, and they do call the food service office with concerns, Derouin said.
Pulling a tray from a student is a last resort, she said.
“What we want is for mom and dad to send money,” Kjergaard said. “We don’t really want to turn kids away.”
Derouin said the district tries to handle the issue behind the scenes, but auditors have said the food service fund can’t be allowed to operate at a deficit, as it did in the past.
When a tray is taken from a student, the food must be dumped, because of the potential for cross-contamination. Why not let the child eat the food? “Because the cycle continues,” Derouin said.
“Moms and dads have to take responsibility,” Kjergaard said. “As a district, we try to do everything to get them to do that.”
The district also provides a number of ways to pay for lunches, including credit cards or automatic withdrawal from bank accounts. Parents can go online and see what their balance is and even see what their children have bought for lunch.
“It’s not fair that it’s the kids that are accountable for the lack of parents’ actions,” Kjergaard said. “To just not pay anything, it doesn’t hurt us, it hurts the kid.”