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Tribune Facebook followers vent about school lunch policies

WILLMAR — Learning that students can have school lunch trays taken from them if their lunch accounts are empty has struck a nerve with people who follow the West Central Tribune’s Facebook page.

Dozens of people responded to posts Thursday and Monday about the issue, telling stories of their children having trays pulled from them or of seeing it happen to others.

Readers also responded with letters to the editor:

Letter: A commendable student act

Letter: Incompetence in the lunch line

A Willmar Senior High student contacted the Tribune last week after seeing a tray taken from another student.

It was embarrassing for him, Maddie Stenglein said, and she used her lunch account to buy his lunch and give it to him.

School officials acknowledged that trays have been taken from senior high students eight times this school year. It’s a very small percentage. The food service serves thousands of breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks each day in a district of 4,100 students.

On Monday, more than 1,000 readers an hour viewed the Facebook post about Stenglein’s story and a letter to the editor: "The truth on school lunches in Willmar" she wrote. The total was at 7,500 views by late afternoon and still climbing.

The comments praised Stenglein buying lunch for the young man. More than 140 people clicked to “like” the link to the story. About 70 comments had been left by late afternoon.

They commended her for “paying it forward” and for speaking up about what she saw.

“Props to her,” wrote Jessi Geurtz. “No kid shouldn’t be able to eat! I bet he was one grateful kid.”

But Stenglein’s good deed was coupled with disdain for school district policies and the practice of taking lunch trays away from students.

Some acknowledged that schools need to have rules and to manage their money wisely, but no one supported the idea of taking food away from students.

“I am glad this young lady paid it forward, but at some point it has to stop! A better approach would have been … to inform this student that there would be no lunch tomorrow until the account had money deposited,” Jim Gaston wrote.

Comments criticized school districts for embarrassing students and also parents for not supporting their children.

Others said their children had lunch trays pulled when they simply forgot to fund a school lunch account, and they were among people who criticized the attempts schools make to contact parents.

A number of people shared heartfelt stories of growing up in low-income families and sometimes borrowing money from friends to buy lunch.

Wrote Dana Rae Anderson: “I had lunch money issues a lot and … boy, was I afraid of what would happen if my friends and classmates found out. It’s not the child’s fault. … Also if I would have had to eat (peanut butter and jelly) on those occasions, I would have suffered a lot because that lunch was the best food I got every day and usually the only real meal. People have no idea what goes on in other people’s homes, so always act with compassion, especially when it’s out of that child’s control.”

For Dani Hofstad, it had a lasting effect. “I stopped eating school lunch because of the few times they did that to me. It is stupid and some kids really aren’t as fortunate as others,” she wrote.

Randy Olson responded to her: “Holy moly, that’s really sad that you went through that. That’s why taking it out on the kids is wrong 100% of the time. I’d go berserk if food was taken out of my kids’ hands and tossed in the garbage!!!”

Some people, like Melissa Olson Peterson, asked how to help pay for meals. “Is there any way I can make a donation to be used only for lunches so a child doesn’t have to be subjected to this anymore?? If I can help just one child, that’s a start,” she wrote.

Bullying came up in several comments. Some said the act of taking away the food is bullying, and could set up kids for teasing and bullying.

“How could you take away a lunch from a child? It’s not the child’s fault there was no lunch money. Life is not all about money when it comes to the innocence of our children. He also could get bullied for being ‘poor.’ They are supposed to protect our children when they are at school,” wrote Amanda Lee Smith Huston.

And there was this from Sheila Ebnet Reinke: “The kids are innocent in this entire ordeal yet they are punished by either not being served dinner or being served a lunch that would make them stand out among their classmates. Either way it results in an embarrassed child. Why bother having anti-bullying programs in place if the school system is going to be the bully?”

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