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Local schools weigh in on negative lunch accounts

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Brainerd Dispatch
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Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

Students won’t go hungry in most area school districts if their accounts are in the red.

Many eyes are on school policies after a recent survey was released showing most Minnesota schools withhold a hot lunch, and in some cases any lunch, to youngsters who can’t pay.

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Policies locally range from students never being denied a hot lunch to teens being told they must pay before eating.

According to The Associated Press, about 62,000 low-income children and teens are in Minnesota’s reduced-price lunch program, which means they can get a hot, nutritious lunch for 40 cents, with the rest covered by public funds. But if students don’t have 40 cents, some schools deny or downgrade lunches.

Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid questioned 309 school districts for the survey. The Star Tribune reported that 46 Minnesota school districts said they immediately or eventually refuse to feed students who can’t pay. More than half the districts in the state, 166 of them, provide an alternative meal, typically a cold cheese sandwich. Another 96 school districts provide a hot lunch regardless of ability to pay.

According to the AP, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius called the report “troubling” and urged schools to make sure kids never are turned away from a hot meal.

“As you know, for too many of our children, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive,” she wrote in a letter to superintendents.

In light of the survey, on Tuesday Gov. Mark Dayton proposed providing additional funding in the upcoming legislative session to ensure that every child has access to a nutritious lunch in Minnesota schools.

He committed to including $3.5 million in his supplemental budget proposal to ensure that no Minnesota student is denied access to a hot meal at lunchtime.

“No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch,” Dayton said in a statement. “We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach.”

Here is how some area schools deal with negative lunch balances:

(For all students, not just those who receive reduced lunches)

Brainerd School District, where about 40 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

Once a student hits negative $20 in a lunch account, they will be given a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk, instead of a hot meal.

That generally happens about six times a year out of a million meals served, said Superintendent Steve Razidlo.

“It’s very rare when we ask a student to have an alternative meal,” he said.

The district also has an “Angel Fund,” where anonymous donors pulled together about $1,000 to be used in small increments to aid families in paying negative lunch accounts.

Pillager School District, where about 55 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

There’s a negative $20 limit for any student to be in the hole.

Elementary kids will never be denied a lunch should they surpass that limit, said Superintendent Chuck Arns. Instead, they will be given a sandwich and fruit or vegetables.

At the high school, however, students will be denied hot lunch after that negative $20 mark.

Typically, like for three times this year so far, the students borrow money from a friend.

“We don’t have kids who don’t eat,” Arns said, noting that no students have gone without food this year.

But if no friends are willing to cough up a few bucks, they could go without.

That policy is in place because of tight funds, Arns said.

“Somehow, someway, the state expects us to make budget,” he said.

He added, “I don’t want to pull the tray from anyone, that’s why we’re proactive and inform the parents ahead of time.”

Little Falls Community Schools, where about 51 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

A hot lunch will never be denied at any time.

“It’s the way we do things,” said Superintendent Steve Jones. “We work with families to make sure all kids have the opportunity to eat hot lunch. ... We’re geared with the academic health of kids in mind. They won’t learn as well with an empty stomach.”

Aitkin School District, where between 45-49 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

At about negative $10, students will be given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, all the fruits and veggies they want, and a milk, instead of a hot meal.

But not every student is held to that $10 in-the-hole mark. It depends on their home situation, said Superintendent Bernie Novak. Several students will go deeper in the negative account and still receive a hot lunch if staff determine it is a special situation.

Crosby-Ironton School District, where 43 percent get a free lunch and 11 get reduced.

There’s no set negative account balance that will cause a student to receive a cold lunch. Instead, that’s determined by the family and situation, said Scott Skinner, the school’s food service director.

Some accounts range from negative $26 to negative $60. As long as the parents are communicating with staff and working to pay something back, that account will stay open.

If parents don’t respond to calls or notices, the student will be given a sandwich, apple and milk which they can have delivered to the classroom so not be singled out) If they still go through the hot lunch line, the meal will not be taken away, Skinner said.

No cold lunches have been handed out this year, he added.

“No kid goes without a meal,” said Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland. “We take care of every child every time. We come up with a solution. Students will not be expected to go to class when they’re hungry. The financial part of (lunch) is an adult issue. We want to keep it at that level.”

Pequot Lakes School district, where about 36 percent are on free or reduced lunch.

Once a student hits negative $5 in their lunch account, they will be given a sandwich, fruit and vegetables, instead of a hot lunch.

If they come through the hot lunch line with a tray, it will not be taken away, said Superintendent Chris Lindholm.

“We try to be as discreet as possible,” he said.

Lindholm added, “We’ll never send a kid away hungry.”

JESSICA LARSEN, staff writer, may be reached at jessica.larsen@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5859. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/brainerdnews.

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