Area school districts have pledged that children will never be denied lunch after a report by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid found that a number of Minnesota school districts deny children a noon meal if they cannot pay for it. Some literally take meals out of children’s hands and toss them in the garbage while kids watch.
Anoka-Hennepin District 11 Superintendent Dennis Carlson calls that practice “unconscionable.”
District 11 has not and will not deny a hot lunch to any child, regardless of whether the funds in their account will cover the meal, he said.
Spring Lake Park District 16’s practices have more caveats. All students will have something for lunch, no matter their circumstance.
Students who qualify for free or reduced meals will always receive a hot lunch, as will all students at the elementary and middle school levels.
In rare instances, at the high school level, if families refuse to pay and owe more than $20, students are given a bag lunch and milk, according to Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg. The denial of hot lunch occurs only after extensive conversations between administration and families and only if the high school student does not qualify for free or reduced lunch, a 40 cent copay.
St. Francis District 15 is listed in the Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s report as a district that has refused food to students who qualify for reduced lunch prices.
The district was mistakenly included on the list because it provided the organization with an incomplete report of its practices, according to Interim Superintendent Troy Ferguson.
Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch have always been provided with a hot meal, as have all students in elementary school and middle school, Ferguson said.
On Feb. 11, Ferguson directed the nutrition department to serve all students hot lunches, no matter their balance.
Previously, if high school students who did not qualify for reduced lunch prices saw their balances dip below zero, their trays were taken away and they were provided with an alternative meal – fruit, veggies and milk.
Ferguson expressed regret about the practice. It occurred very rarely – about six times per year, he estimates.
“I looked at this as an opportunity to make a positive change,” Ferguson said.
Cashiers continue to give students a verbal warning when their balance hits three meals or less. They are also offered a hand-stamp reminder, a smiley face, Ferguson said.
Calls go out to parents when a child’s balance falls below $5.
None of the three districts have school board policies in place pertaining to school lunch payment, only practices.
The St. Francis School Board will address the topic in a strategic plan, Ferguson said.
Carlson would like to see the Anoka-Hennepin Board create a uniform policy that addresses the following question: “How do we hold adults accountable for paying the bills they owe us?”
He distinguishes between families with economic difficulties and families that forget or choose not to pay. He would like to see policy that creates uniform action steps the district can take when a variety of fees are due – everything from lunch money, to childcare bills, field trip costs to library fines.
“Part of our dilemma is you can’t send a mixed message,” Carlson said. “In any case, we’re not going to refuse a meal.”
Olivia Koester is at firstname.lastname@example.org