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Grand Forks Schools recommends one-year trial for school lunch program


After a long discussion, Grand Forks Public Schools leaders made a compromise Monday over offering school lunches to children with negative balances.

School Board members debated the child nutrition account balances policy for more than half an hour before Superintendent Terry Brenner suggested a one-year trial. It includes not putting a cap on how far a student's lunch balance can go in the red and allowing children to have whatever lunch they want—the hot meal or nonchoice option, which includes a soy butter sandwich with jelly, an apple or banana and milk.

"Here's what I am hearing: No one wants to cap a kid," he said. "It just sounds like we just should let our kids go through the lunch line, select what they want to select" and use funds from fundraisers and Grand Forks Foundation for Education to pay for negative balances.

Board members consented to the directive for the Child Nutrition Program, which manages finances for school lunches. It's a deviation from a committee's recommendation to give students who have a negative balance of $50 the nonchoice meal.

School staff still will work to notify parents when their children run out of lunch money. The board also will review data collected from the one-year trial to see if the policy needs revisions.

The district was required to come up with a policy after the U.S. Department of Agriculture required child nutrition programs across the U.S. to address negative meal balances.

That triggered months of debate that included using debt collection agencies to recover negative balances and allowing the district to report child abuse if a child's account was too far in the red. Those suggestions were scrapped for fear they would be too punitive to families.

Leaders also discussed stamping children's hands as a reminder to parents to pay for lunch, a method previously used by the district that was dropped amid concerns students were being labeled.

The district had no negative balances last year, nor did it have to serve nonchoice meals because of negative balances, Child Nutrition Director Emily Karel said.

Board member Cynthia Shabb said she has received several letters from parents about the lunch policy. The city is working to reduce poverty and hunger, she said, adding she wants to make sure the district is offering "an adequate lunch meal."

"Poverty is on the minds and hearts of Grand Forks residents," she said.

Shabb noted students often choose a soy butter sandwich, but she said all students should have a choice.

"I'm not sure I want to be a board member that says no to a choice," she said. "And I'm not sure I want to be a board member that says we are only going to give soy butter sandwiches even though it is the choice of students."

Board members said they didn't want to punish children when their parents failed to put money in their accounts. Nobody wants to hurt children or parents, Brenner said. The board must be held accountable to taxpayers, he said, but he doesn't "ever want to equate balancing a taxpayer's perspective to how we make a kid feel."

"One of the great reasons about living in this community is the passion," Brenner said. "It's the passion around conversations like this

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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