Superintendents say lunches are available to all students in the area
WILLMAR — Area school districts work with families who are having trouble paying for their children’s school meals.
The issue rose to national prominence recently when a Utah school was reported to have taken food trays from students in front of their peers.
Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid released a survey of Minnesota school districts this week that listed nearly 50 districts that will deny food to children eligible for reduced-price meals. In that category, families pay 40 cents per meal and receive breakfast free.
BOLD, Lac qui Parle Valley and Montevideo schools were on that list. However, the superintendents said the survey doesn’t tell the whole story of how their schools operate.
“We haven’t been picking up trays or dumping food,” Montevideo Superintendent Luther Heller said.
Montevideo stopped allowing students to charge meals about five years ago, when the food service had an outstanding balance of $100,000 in its lunch account.
“We’ve been able to collect most of it and stay current,” he said. To do that, the district has worked with families and urged them to apply for free or reduced-price meals.
If a family develops a payment plan, even if they still owe a debt, the kids will be able to eat, he added.
Elementary students whose meal account is empty are given an alternative lunch of a sandwich and milk, and they are served that every day until the account is brought up to date.
“We do our best to minimize any embarrassment there might be,” he said.
It’s a similar story at BOLD schools. “Never do we take food away from kids,” said Superintendent John Dotson. In most cases, kids receive a hot lunch, and the school contacts the family to make arrangements to pay. It’s rare that a child receives an alternate sandwich and milk meal.
The school’s social worker will contact families, he said, and “we’ll find financial assistance for kids.” For some children, the hot lunch at school may be the only hot meal they get in a day, he added.
Earlier in the week, Lac qui Parle Valley Superintendent Renae Tostenson said that children eligible for free or reduced-price meals are never denied a hot lunch in that district either.
All the superintendents said they contact families and urge parents to apply for free or reduced-price lunches, but some families don’t want to apply for the assistance.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius sent a memo on meal policies to school districts this week, stating that “it is difficult for hungry children to learn.” She urged schools to develop thoughtful policies that would not “target or shame students for financial considerations beyond their control.”
She urged school districts to use community resources to help pay for meals in emergency circumstances and to develop effective communication with families.
“Minnesota has long been a leader in looking beyond minimum requirements in order to better serve children,” Cassellius wrote.