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Our view: Board right to try trial for lunch plan

Herald editorial board

Compromise and compassion. Those are important words to remember in decision-making, and they come to mind after learning that the Grand Forks School Board chose a kinder, gentler approach to families indebted to the district's lunch program.

The Herald reported this week how board members debated the child nutrition account balances policy for more than a half an hour at the regularly scheduled Monday meeting. Eventually, new Superintendent Terry Brenner interjected.

"Here's what I am hearing: No one wants to cap a (child's lunch account)," Brenner said. "It just sounds like we just should let our kids go through the lunch line, select what they want to select."

He's right. Nobody wants to see a child's account capped. One alternative when an account reaches critical debt is to push children toward the "non-choice" option of a soy butter sandwich with jelly, a piece of fruit and milk. That alternative could have been mandated once a child's account hits minus-$50.

The district needed to come up with a policy to send information home to parents when their children have negative balances, per U.S. Department of Agriculture requirements. What followed was a conversation that ran the gamut of ideas, from using debt collection agencies, reporting cases as child abuse or continuing a practice of stamping a child's hand when accounts are deficient. The board decided the former two options are too punitive to families, and the latter is too punitive to the child.

We also believe it's harsh for children to be forced into a non-option meal, since it will be apparent to all that financial troubles exist at home. That's a heavy burden for a grade-schooler, and especially so when classmates decipher the meaning of that bland lunch.

Brenner told the board that, yes, he and the board are responsible to taxpayers, but that he doesn't want to "equate balancing a taxpayers' perspective to how we make a kid feel."

So compassion won out, as it should have.

Fortunately, it sounds like the problem isn't widespread in Grand Forks. Child Nutrition Director Emily Karel said the district had a very minor deficit last year, of $2,400, and only served a few non-choice lunches because of it.

Going forward, school employees will work diligently to notify parents when an account nears deficiency. With that in mind, the board chose this one-year trial to see how it goes. That's compromise.

Parents who allow accounts to grow deficient should be held accountable. But sending a child to school and branding them — whether literally (with a mark on their hand) or figuratively (in the eyes of their peers) — isn't the best way to accomplish that accountability.

The board and the superintendent did it right.