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School Board members debate best policy for unpaid meal accounts

The Grand Forks School District's policy on low and negative lunch accounts is in effect for the first time this year, and School Board members have differing views on how that policy should be carried out.

Some question the practice of asking students to remind their parents when their account dips too low and suggest that providing an alternative meal is potentially embarrassing to students.

The policy, which involves when and how to inform families of overdue accounts, is "pretty consistent" with that of other school districts, Emily Karel, director of the Child Nutrition Program for Grand Forks Public Schools, told the board at a meeting last week.

Elementary students may charge up to 10 meals before a soy butter sandwich, milk and choice of an apple or banana is provided, Karel said.

Middle and high school students may charge five meals before the alternate meal is provided.

Students are reminded, in the lunch line, to inform their parents when their accounts are at a low or negative balance.

"I have a concern about verbalizing to the child in line, especially in the elementary grades," said Meggen Sande. "I would prefer it not be mentioned to the kid. (Low or negative meal accounts) are not the kids' fault."

Since January, when the school district updated its automated Blackboard Connect system to alert parents to account shortfalls, parents have responded well.

"We send automatic reminders on Sunday evenings," Karel said.

Parents who do not have an email account receive printed reminder letters students carry home in backpacks, Karel said.

Some parents may receive a phone call from a staff member, she said, "but we're trying to get away from that" because of the time involved.

Child Nutrition staff members work closely with school counselors and social workers to identify and help support families in need, Karel said.

Alternate meal

About 120 students are behind in their accounts, "anywhere from a few cents to $30 or more," Karel said. "We're at less than $1,000 negative overall."

As of Feb. 19, 64 meals have been served to students whose meal accounts fell into the red during this school year—about half in elementary and half in middle schools, she said.

Karel calls those meals "nonchoice" meals, because some students voluntarily choose the soy butter sandwich meal option.

"We have served 22,000 soy butter sandwich meals by choice in elementary schools, or about 90 a day," Karel said.

The cost of the soy butter sandwich meal is about $1, compared to $2.50 to $3 for a hot meal, Karel said.

Some board members wondered if the school district could cover the extra cost of a hot meal, possibly on a trial basis.

"I would prefer kids get to choose what they eat," said Sande. "I don't want them to be singled out."

Federal funds cannot be used to pay for meals for those who don't qualify for free and reduced-meals, Karel said.

"Under the last federal administration, there was a liberalizing of guidelines to allow more families to qualify for subsidized meals," said Superintendent Larry Nybladh.

About 35 percent of students in the Grand Forks school system are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

"If you don't have to pay your bill, what's the incentive to pay your bill?" Nybladh said. "In the longer term, what's the precedent that's being set?"

In Williston, a donor is contributing $1,000 per month to an account to cover unpaid meal expenses, Karel said. "It's used more than 100 times a month."

In Minnesota, some school districts have a "significant number of accounts that are past due, which can total over $10,000," said Tracy Jentz, communications coordinator for Grand Forks Public Schools.

The Classes That Care fund, which stands at about $4,000, was established within the Grand Forks Foundation for Education to help families who do not qualify for free and reduced meals.

Karel said that if payment responsibility shifts away from parents, "I can see (the cost) ballooning like in Williston."

Eric Lunn cautioned against moving in that direction.

"If you set it up, even on a trial basis, it becomes an entitlement and, if you take it away, you'll hear about it," Lunn said.