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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 12 2014

Moorhead High students denied hot lunches if their account is not paid up

MOORHEAD – Low-income students at Moorhead’s elementary and middle schools, and the Red River Area Learning Center, won’t miss a hot meal if they can’t come up with the 40-cent co-payments for their reduced-price lunches.

Moorhead High School students, on the other hand, can charge one meal, but after that won’t be served a meal until the account is paid up.

“It think it’s pretty rare” when students are denied lunch, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said Wednesday. “I don’t hear of it very often. But realize, not all of our kids eat at school. We have an open campus. … If they don’t have the money, we might not even know because they wouldn’t even go through our lines.”

In Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton schools, if a reduced-price eligible student doesn’t have cash in their account to pay the 40-cent lunch co-payment, they’re handed a sandwich and some milk.

“Right now we have the alternate meals. No one is denied the meal,” Superintendent Bryan Thygeson said.

In Hawley schools, however, students are served hot food no matter their account balance. The district works behind the scenes to collect what it can.

“It’s hard to penalize a child for their parents not paying or being unable to pay,” Superintendent Phil Jensen said Wednesday. “They need that meal. In many cases, it may be the only good hot meal they may be getting that day.”

A recent report issued by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid has made hot lunches for children who can’t come up with the reduced-price co-payments a hot topic around the state.

Gov. Mark Dayton wants $3.5 million added to the state budget to pick up the 40-cent co-payments for more than 60,000 children who qualify for reduced-price meals.

“No child in Minnesota should be denied a healthy lunch,” Dayton said in a news release.

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius also called on school districts “to find ways to ensure children are never turned away from receiving a hot meal.

“As you know, for too many of our children, school meals may be the only nutritious meals they receive,” she said. “We also know that children learn best when they have nutritious meals throughout their days.”

The Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid survey found 46 of the state’s school districts have policies that deny students access to a hot lunch if they can’t pay the 40-cent co-payment.

Besides the Moorhead School District, Fergus Falls and Frazee-Vergas schools are also listed as having policies that include an immediate or eventual refusal to serve food to a child who can’t afford the co-pay.

Another 165 districts won’t guarantee a hot lunch to a reduced-price eligible student who can’t afford the co-pay. Many of those districts allow for some hot meals on credit. But all, like D-G-F, at some point provide an alternate meal until the child can pay. Most often, that’s a cheese or a peanut butter sandwich and milk.

Among area districts with an alternative lunch policy, Legal Aid lists Ada-Borup, Barnesville, Breckenridge, East Grand Forks, Mahnomen, Norman County East, Park Rapids, Ulen-Hitterdal, Underwood and Wheaton.

The survey found 98 districts always provide a full hot lunch to reduced-price eligible children, even if they can’t afford the co-pay.

Besides Hawley, area districts that always provide a hot lunch include Fosston, Lake Park-Audubon, Menahga, New York Mills, Norman County West, Pelican Rapids, Perham-Dent, Rothsay, and Waubun-Ogema-White Earth

The survey was answered by 309 public school districts, or 94 percent of all districts statewide.

Some of those districts that had the toughest policies reported pulling trays from children and dumping exposed food into the trash in front of the child.

Thygeson said D-G-F gives lots of notification when meal account balances are low. He said the district gets no reimbursement for the alternate meals.

He added that D-G-F has been considering a review of its meal policy.

“I do believe the governor’s plan would be very much supported by families and school districts. I think it’s a great step,” Thygeson said.

In Hawley, Jensen said students who don’t provide the co-pay get a hot meal, but they can’t pick up ala carte items.

“They are going to get the meal that we are required to serve by federal guidelines,” Jensen said. “They just aren’t going to get the extras that they may want.”

In the Fargo School District, students can charge one meal on their account, said Deb Laber, director of nutrition services.

After that, if the student’s account has no funds, they get a free lunch of a sandwich and a beverage. A free breakfast would be toast and some juice, Laber said.

“We never let anybody go hungry. We always feed all the students,” Laber said.

Some schools also have accounts that use donations to pay for students’ meals, Laber said.

In West Fargo, any elementary-age student can charge up to six meals (though 7.5 reduced-price meals can be charged), Food Service Director Jan Sliper said.

After that, elementary students get a cheese sandwich and milk.

No meal charging is allowed in the middle and high school, Sliper said.

At some schools, the food service manager may have access to funds to cover the co-pay, Sliper said.

However, students regularly unable to pay for a meal will get a peanut butter sandwich and milk. A counselor will also be brought in to provide a free- and reduced-price lunch application to the family, Sliper said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583