Changes proposed for school lunch programs
Proposed legislation moving through the state Legislature would require that students who qualify for reduced-price lunches be provided with lunch at school regardless of the status of their lunch account.
The proposed legislation, moving through both House and Senate committees, prohibits school districts from denying "... lunch to a child eligible for a reduced-price school lunch who lacks sufficient funds to pay for lunch or has unpaid school lunch debts."
If passed, the legislation would add approximately 61,500 students statewide to the free lunch program. It comes at a cost of about $4 million to the state.
Statewide, there have been reports of students with a negative balance in their lunch account being given a hot lunch alternative, like a sandwich, or even denied lunch altogether.
Locally, guidelines are far more lenient, according to Barb Larson, director of food and nutrition services for Alexandria School District 206.
However, she added, "Just like any eatery, we are responsible to collect payment, so our bills for running the school meal programs are current."
DISTRICT 206 POLICY
As of March 1 in District 206, 321 students receive reduced-price lunches at school - 40 cents per meal - and parents are required to apply for the reduced rate each school year. Their qualification for the program is based on the student's family's household income.
For students in grades 7-12 who do not have enough money in their account and have more than three days of meal charges:
--The student can pay cash for today's meal.
--The student will be offered a complimentary mini meal.
--The student can call their parent to notify them that the meal payment is needed tomorrow and the student is served the regular meal.
"With that being said, we have not been firm on enforcing these procedures right away," Larson said. "We prefer to work with the parents to pay the bill in full or set up a meal repayment plan. When the charges get too high for a family, [our] staff will call the parents to work on collecting. Families that do not respond to phone requests after repeated attempts will be sent a letter from [the school district], which asks them to send home-packed meals with their children until they have paid their debt. We tend to have the same families that we work with to collect meal payments."
For elementary students, Larson said the district is more lenient.
"We continue to serve grades K-2, and we are fairly lenient with grades 3-6. We have allowed students to continue eating and prefer to work with parents," Larson said. "The difficult part is when our notifications are ignored and calls not returned when we want to work with families to set up a payment plan."
Currently, District 206 has $400 in uncollected accounts from reduced-price meals.
"A larger area of concern for our district is unpaid meal accounts from families that are on paid-meal status and from families that may qualify for meal benefits but they do not renew their application on time or complete the required paperwork," Larson said.
Staff reportedly tries to contact these families frequently and a number of times, they do not get a response.
"Once the debt is incurred, [the federal government] will not allow us to go back and erase it and claim those meals for government reimbursement. Currently, our total unpaid meal account debt is -$4,219.22. This is equivalent to 1,736 paid elementary meals."
When asked how much the district had to write-off last year from unpaid meal debt, Larson said, "We were able to work with families to set up a progressive repayment plan, so this generally is not an issue for our district."
Three area legislators serve on committees that the bills are headed for next. State Senators Bill Ingebrigtsen and Torrey Westrom serve on the Senate Finance Committee, and State Representative Mark Anderson serves on the House Education Policy Committee. All three were asked for their opinion on the proposed legislation.
State Representative Mark Anderson told the Echo Press, "I have a bigger question which needs to be asked: How many documented instances are there not only within my district (House 9A), but statewide, of qualified students being denied reduced-price lunch? Hopefully, I will have that question answered when the bill comes to the House Education Committee."
Senator Ingebrigtsen said, "There is already a means in place to provide free or reduced lunches, depending on the family income, no child goes without proper nutrition. This legislation is not needed and has very little support."
State Senator Westrom did not reply to a request for comment.
WHY CAN'T MEALS BE FREE?
Larson said the Minnesota School Nutrition Association opposes legislation that would require schools to allow students to charge an unlimited number of meals without paying for them.
Larson said schools are ultimately responsible for figuring out how to cover the cost of the meals that have been eaten but have not been paid for. "Therefore, school districts should set their own policies regarding how to limit negative account balances," she said.
"I like the concept of making reduced price lunches free," Larson said. "For that matter, I wish all students received both free breakfast and free lunch as part of their public education so all could have nutritious school meals. But, in reality, there are not funds for that in our current economy."