Districts say they work with parents, percentage of meals pulled is miniscule

Feb. 19–WILLMAR — After a half dozen students had their lunch trays taken away from them in line last spring, the New London-Spicer Parent Teacher Organization stepped in.

The PTO donated $1,500 to help the school district feed children whose lunch accounts were in deficit, and the tray-pulling has stopped, said New London-Spicer Superintendent Paul Carlson.

Last week, Willmar officials said eight trays had been pulled from senior high students since September.

Montevideo has pulled two trays this school year from students whose lunch accounts were empty.

As a part of the overall food service operation in these districts, the percentage of pulled trays is miniscule. The three districts feed a total of about 8,000 students each day.

Still, most of the readers of the Tribune’s Facebook page were upset with the idea of a student having a tray of food taken away at all, no matter how many times it happens. They used words like “bullying” and “embarrassing” to describe it.

Some said they could understand the need to avoid deficits in lunch accounts but didn’t think lunch trays should be pulled. Several mentioned finding a way the community could help pay for the lunches.

The issue came to light after a Willmar Senior High student saw a lunch tray pulled from another student a week ago. She felt badly for the red-faced young man, so she paid for his lunch. She later contacted the Tribune.

School lunches have been in the news since a Utah school was reported to have taken lunches from students and thrown away the food.

An annual survey of school lunches in Minnesota was released a week ago, too.

Willmar school officials outlined their policy last week, including multiple efforts to contact parents when lunch accounts are nearly empty. Often, teachers or other staff members help pay for a student’s meal.

Taking away a lunch is a last resort, said Annette Derouin, director of food and nutrition.

Willmar, along with other districts, will work with families and set up payment plans. As long as the plans are followed, children eat school lunches.

Willmar School Board Chairman Mike Carlson said Tuesday that the board will be discussing the issue and going over its policies at an upcoming meeting.

Carlson said he knows from personal experience that the district makes numerous attempts to reach parents when a lunch account is low. And while he is not sure how to avoid the situation, “the kid is clearly the innocent one in this thing,” he said

Students are often offered an alternate lunch, usually a sandwich and milk, when they have no money left. Often, elementary students will continue to receive the alternate lunch until their lunch account deficit has been resolved, but most districts have a limit for high school students.

In Montevideo’s schools, early childhood, elementary and middle school students do not have trays taken from them, said Superintendent Luther Heller. Students have been given alternate lunches, but it’s discussed with the child before going through the lunch line.

“We do our best not to try to embarrass students,” he said. “By the same token, we can’t provide everybody with a free meal.”

Heller said his school district recently had a state audit of its food service program, and received praise for its operation.

Derouin is also the director of the Montevideo, NLS, MACCRAY, and Community Christian School food service programs.

“Annette’s doing a fabulous job,” Heller said.

Willmar Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard praised Derouin’s work. All of the programs she oversees receive high marks in state reviews, he said.

Knowing students have had their trays taken from them bothers everyone involved, he said, “but it bothers her more.”

Heller said, “Her goal is to feed the kids the best meal she can possibly feed them, but we do have to deal with the economics of things.”

Carlson said the schools are in a difficult position when it comes to the unfunded lunch accounts.

“We don’t operate to make a profit, but we can’t go into deficit either,” he said.

The PTO’s school lunch fund at NLS can be used to purchase a school meal for a child, but students need a positive balance in their accounts if they want to buy seconds or a la carte items, he said.

NLS principals and Carlson will contact parents to work with them on lunch account deficits. “Nobody wants to embarrass kids,” he said. “I feel bad for the kids; I feel bad for the staff. … The PTO fund keeps that from happening.”

Lunch trays are not pulled at several other area school districts who responded to email inquiries about their practices.

Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City Superintendent Sherri Broderius said students are fed, regardless of their family’s financial status, and she credited the district staff for sending notes and emails and calling families to remind them about funding the lunch accounts.

The district also has a backpack program to send food home for weekends.

“No student in Benson Public Schools is denied a meal,” said Superintendent Dennis Laumeyer. If a lunch account is in deficit, students through grade 8 receive a regular meal, and high school students will receive a peanut butter sandwich and selected other items, he wrote. High school students also have an open lunch hour and can leave campus if they want.

It’s rare that a student will receive an alternate lunch, said BOLD Superintendent John Dotson. The school’s social worker works with families and will also seek out alternative funding sources for them.