Leaders at Stillwater Area Schools are calling recent media reports about school lunch practices in the district unfair.
Results of a survey by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid made headlines last week with the news that 46 school districts in the state (15 percent) reported a practice of “immediate or eventual refusal to serve hot lunch or an alternative meal to a child who cannot pay.” The news led Gov. Mark Dayton to propose legislation that would provide $3.5 million to ensure no student would be denied a hot meal at lunchtime, regardless of their ability to pay.
Stillwater was listed among the 46 districts that would eventually refuse to serve lunch to students who couldn’t pay. But district officials say that even though there are guidelines in place to prevent abuse of the system, the district works closely with families to make sure students receive the nutrition they need.
“What was very disheartening for us is the media made it look like we’re refusing to feed students,” district spokesperson Carissa Keister said. “That’s not the case. … Our food service staff are going above and beyond to make sure our kids are being fed.”
In fact, she said, the food service guidelines state that “We will not let the child go hungry.”
The district does not have a board-approved policy for dealing with a situation where students can’t pay for their lunches, Kiester said — instead it has guidelines that allow flexibility. She said the guidelines are shared with food service staff, and some of the pertinent information is included in parent handbooks.
When a child’s lunch account gets low, an automated system sends a reminder to parents via phone or email. At the elementary level, students can charge up to three meals when their accounts are empty. After the first charge, a staff member contacts the child’s parents, and issues are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Usually a parent deposits money in the account, and the problem is resolved.
If the family can’t afford the lunches, Keister said, staff members work with them to fill out paperwork for free meals or help them access money through the district’s Angel Fund, a discretionary fund that schools can use to help students in need with items such as meals, winter coats, field trip fees and the like.
“In the meantime, kids are still getting those meals,” Keister said.
At the high school level, guidelines don’t allow students to charge meals. Occasionally high school students are offered a peanut butter sandwich, milk and fruit if they don’ have money in their account for a hot lunch, the district says.
A statement released on the district’s website says, “It would be a very rare occasion that a child would not receive a lunch.”
When might that happen? Only when a student appears to be abusing the system, according to Keister.
“We’re trying to protect against somebody who has the means to buy a lunch and chooses not to,” she said. “When it comes to a child who really can’t afford a lunch, it’s going to be a different situation. And both of those are very rare occurrences.”
Keister said staff members know the students personally and are motivated to resolve issues that arise. In fact, she knows of food service staff members who have personally paid for student meals out of their own pockets.
All the media attention has had one positive result for the district, Keister said. Since the issue began receiving attention last week, nearly a dozen parents, staff and community members have made donations to the district’s Angel Fund.
Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]