New policy will prohibit forced dumping of meals
Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed using state money to buy hot lunches for students who can’t pay. “We cannot expect our students to succeed on an empty stomach,” Dayton said.
According to a recent study conducted by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, if a student’s lunch account is negative, many Minnesota school districts deny the student a hot lunch.
The Forest Lake school district was one of 166 districts categorized as “not always guaranteeing hot lunch to a reduced price student who cannot afford the 40 cent fee.”
For children whose families qualify for reduced-price lunch, it’s not just getting through the day: The concern is that the school lunch may be the main meal of the day.
On top of the hunger is the public embarrassment. After the student takes a lunch, if the checkout computer shows insufficient funds, some schools have the student dump the hot meal in the trash. The humiliated student goes hungry and the food is wasted.
This has happened in the Forest Lake school district. On the last day of school last June, Century Junior High staff ordered at least one student to throw the pizza meal into the garbage can. This was not a reduced-price lunch student but one whose family pays the full cost.
But it probably won’t happen again. Food Service Supervisor Kathy Hoff, promoted to this position in January, is writing new procedures for district food service staff. Forcing them to dump an uneaten meal is not included.
The district charges ele-mentary students $2.10 for a hot lunch. Junior and senior high students pay $2.40. Milk adds 40 cents, or juice, 50 cents.
According to food service procedure, a student with no money in his account can still take hot lunch. The cashier will mention the low balance so that the student can tell his parents that it’s time to replenish the account.
In the past the district used hand stamping to help get the low balance message home to parents, but no longer.
“We used to offer a smiley face or sunshine stamp if the child asked for a reminder, but we have discontinued that practice,” Hoff said.
Another past practice that is being rethought is the cold sandwich. If the amount owed reaches $10, or about four meals, the school offers a sandwich and milk instead of hot lunch. When she started in her new position, Hoff added a serving of fruit to the cold meal.
“We don’t want the children to go hungry,” she said.
Now the cold lunch practice is on hold while the district works with the state of Minnesota to write new procedures.
Using state money to help prevent hunger in the schools is a good idea, according to Business Manager Larry Martini.
“We’re hoping the state will act on a statewide policy,” he said. The school lunch program is audited, he said, “and a lot of focus is on the money.”
Schools are not permitted to run a negative balance, Martini said; in fact, they are required to maintain a balance equal to the three-month operating cost. The end-of-year fund balance for the Forest Lake district food service is expected to be $680,125.
Hoff credits her staff with being kindhearted, for the most part.
“At the elementary level, the staff are there because they love kids,” she said. “A lot of them have a hard time substituting a sandwich and milk. Some have even paid out of their own pockets” to buy a kid a lunch.
The number of students in the district who are fed a sandwich is recorded. This year, on average, only three students per month fell into this category.
How does a student in arrears know not to take hot lunch, if taking a tray of food is the first step and paying the cashier is the last step in the lunch line?
“A balance report is run before lunch,” Hoff said. At the elementary schools, when the cold sandwich policy was in place, “the servers knew ahead of time who would be getting the cold lunch.”
Students were also told the day before that tomorrow, unless the account was replenished, they would be getting a cold lunch.
All students are treated the same, Hoff said, whether they pay in full or receive free or reduced lunch. (Of course, students who get free lunch never have a negative balance.)
The USDA sets the categories: Families who qualify for free lunch, based on income, also get free breakfast. Families who qualify for reduced-price lunch pay $.40 per lunch, per child, and also get free breakfast. For families who pay the full price for lunch, breakfast costs $1.80. Both breakfast and lunch are optional.
In addition to eight elementary schools, two junior highs, the high school and area learning center, ISD 831 also provides food service for St. Peter’s Catholic School and Lakes International Language Academy.
For this entire group, 77 percent pay the full price for lunch. A total of 17 percent qualify for free lunch and 7 percent for reduced lunch. Hoff said free and reduced lunch numbers here are low compared to the state average.
One reason account balances are depleted before parents can replenish them is that students are offered, in addition to the hot lunch, “à la carte” items.
These can add up fast. A 1.7-ounce chocolate chip cookie costs $1. A package of two whole-grain pop tarts adds $1.25. Ice cream cups and fudge bars (each 80 cents), even 1/2-cup servings of vegetables (50 cents) are available.
Compared to $2.40 for an entire lunch, $1 for a cookie seems expensive.
The district offers these extras for the purpose of raising money to subsidize the regular lunch service, Martini explained. Even though new USDA requirements make lunch ingredients more expensive, the cost has not increased.
“It helps to sustain our program,” Martini said. “We chose not to add to the price of a lunch.”
But parents are not at the mercy of their cookie-loving young. By going to Paypams.com (the website for funding a school lunch account by credit card), a parent can see exactly what the child has been purchasing: every packaged treat, with its price.
To prevent à la carte purchases, the parent can call the food service or talk to the cashier at school. A restriction on the child’s account will appear on the cashier’s computer.
As USDA guidelines change, à la carte options will become healthier, Hoff said, and to keep them under a certain calorie limit, the bags will be getting smaller.
More information about the school lunch program will appear in next week’s Times.