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Willmar School District decides to stop denying meals to kids who have empty lunch accounts

In this undated photo, students at Willmar Senior High move through the lunch line in the cafeteria. The district has announced that students with no money in their lunch accounts will no longer have their lunch trays taken from them. Tribune photo

WILLMAR — There will be no more tray-pulling in Willmar schools.

Students with no money in their lunch accounts will no longer have their lunch trays taken from them in front of their classmates.

“We decided we’re not going to take trays away from kids, and we’re going to work harder to try to get in touch with their parents,” Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said Wednesday.

Kjergaard said the district’s changes to its practices are “common sense.” The Cardinal Care Fund will accept donations from the public to help pay for the meals.

The issue came to light two weeks ago when a Willmar Senior High student sent an email to the Tribune. Then a question about school lunches on the Tribune’s page on Facebook prompted dozens of comments.

The comments were from people whose kids had had their lunch taken away because they couldn’t pay for it, or from kids themselves, who said they were embarrassed by the experience.

Others were from people who were shocked that anyone could take a meal away from a student when the dispute should be between parents and the school.

School officials defended their policy at first, saying letting the students eat when the lunch accounts were empty would violate the policy against charging meals.

This week, they decided to modify their practices.

Maddie Stenglein, the student who first contacted the newspaper about students’ lunch being taken away, was pleased with the change. “I just wanted the kids to have something to eat,” she said, and she hadn’t been seeking the attention she got.

Stenglein had witnessed a young man’s lunch taken away, and she had paid for it so that he could eat. Then she wrote her email.

 “We’ve made the modification and we think it will work,” Kjergaard said. “Mom and dad will still have to pay, but the young person won’t.”

The change was announced first by Willmar School Board chairman Mike Carlson on Facebook Wednesday morning.

He wrote in response to a question on the Tribune’s page, “As of February 24th a change was made to no longer provide a peanut butter/cheese sandwich and milk but instead continue to provide a hot meal. The District Office will monitor account balances and use the Cardinal Care Fund to make adjustments to negative accounts. Contact the District Office if you have questions.”

Kjergaard said the district will continue to work with families who may have difficulties paying for their children’s lunch.

“If they’re struggling, we want them to apply for free or reduced lunch,” he said. The staff can help them with the paperwork. He said he also understood that some families may be too proud to apply for the assistance.

The Cardinal Care Fund was first established to provide emergency meals for families that were waiting for their applications for free or reduced-price meals to be approved.

The fund will now be used to pay for meals so that every child gets a hot lunch. The public may contribute to the fund by sending a check to Willmar Public Schools, Attention: Food Service, 611 Fifth St. S.W., Willmar MN 56201 or by calling 320-231-8526.

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