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Federal pilot program providing free school lunches for more kids, including in Willmar

Nearly 65% of Willmar Public Schools students are receiving free lunches at school this year. Some of them receive them through a federal pilot program that automatically enrolls children who received Medical Assistance. In Willmar, all students receive a free breakfast. The district is eligible for some additional programs because of its high level of poverty.

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A file photo of the Willmar Public Schools sign at the Willmar Education and Arts Center, where the administration offices are located.
Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — A federal pilot project in Minnesota and seven other states will provide thousands of children with free school meals.

Children who receive Medical Assistance have been enrolled automatically in meal assistance in the eight states chosen for the pilot project.

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Willmar Public Schools Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase

In all, 64.8% of Willmar Public Schools students, nearly 2,700 young people, qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, Business and Finance Director Kathryn Haase told the Willmar School Board at its meeting last week.

According to state estimates released in August, 90,000 Minnesota students are expected to receive meals this year through the federal pilot project.

The federal government provided free meals to all school children in the country from March 2020 through this summer, but pandemic funding for the meals ended when school started this year.

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In Minnesota, students who qualify for reduced-price meals under federal guidelines also eat free, because the state covers the fee families would have to pay.

In Willmar, all students preK-12 receive breakfast free, but they have to pay for lunches if they don’t qualify for free meals.

Meal costs for students are $2.15 for grades K-5 students and $2.25 for grades 6-12. There is no subsidy for adults, who pay $2.25 for breakfast and $4.95 for lunches.

Haase told the board the district’s K-12 enrollment at the end of last week was 4,124 students. That’s about 30 more than a month ago but 105 fewer than at the same time a year ago.

Portrait of Bill Adams, Willmar Schools assistant superintendent
Willmar Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Bill Adams
Contributed / Willmar Public Schools

Enrollment is 56 students higher than at the end of the last school year, Haase said.

When a school district has more than 60% of its students qualifying for meal assistance, some additional funding becomes available, Haase said.

One of the benefits for the district is a snack of fresh fruits or vegetables each day for elementary students. The district has received that benefit for a number of years.

In other business, the board heard a follow-up report to a previous discussion about retaining some school year employees by helping them find summer work opportunities.

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Assistant Superintendent Bill Adams said he will be meeting with Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce President Ken Warner to discuss the issue. He said he will also speak with Jim Sieben, president of Nova-Tech Engineering.

Sieben was at the board meeting when the issue first came up and suggested he would like to be involved in finding a solution.

Adams said he continues to work on a study of the effect on the district of open enrollment — the program that allows student enrollment from one school district into another where they do not reside. He said he has received some survey responses and expects more.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education website, Willmar Public Schools loses hundreds of students to other school districts in the area each year.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: lvanderwerf@wctrib.com or phone 320-214-4340
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The Tribune publishes Records as part of its obligation to inform readers about the business of public institutions and to serve as a keeper of the local historical record. All items are written by Tribune staff members based on information contained in public documents from the state court system and from law enforcement agencies. It is the Tribune’s policy that this column contain a complete record. Requests for items to be withheld will not be granted.