Grand Forks’ Public Schools students continue to benefit from a lunch program that ensures they receive a hot meal, regardless of whether they can afford to pay.

A district spokeswoman confirmed this week that the program, launched as a pilot program last year, is still in place. The policy, described extensively on the district’s website, amounts to an honor system. Those who can pay for it, can; parents of those who can’t may get a letter, or see school leaders “attempt to collect” their debt.

But everyone’s kids will still eat “the meal of their choice, regardless of the ability to pay,” spokeswoman Tracy Jentz said in an email.

“It’s a great policy, and I think it’s very important, because then we make sure that kids are having a great lunch — that they’re eating well,” said School Board President Bill Palmiscno. “We’ve had some really good donations from lots of people in the community … but our policy is the general fund will cover that.”

Palmiscno is referring at least in part to a $6,500 donation made by foundation of local hockey stars Monique and Jocelyn Lamoreux to alleviate student lunch debts in the district.

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“Growing up, our mother always told us to cheer for the one behind,” the sisters said in a September news release. “That lesson went beyond sports and became the core of a set of values we carry with us today.”

There was $3,249.95 in district-wide negative lunch accounts “for the 2018-19 school year,” per a district spokesperson. No data on the current year’s balance was available this week, officials said.

“It’s a feel-good (thing),” Palmiscno said. “They’re more awake, and they have more energy in their body so they can learn better. That’s why we’re here, to provide the best learning environment for the kids. That helps with the learning environment.”

The efforts come as school lunch policies enter the spotlight around the country. According to a 2018 report from the School Nutrition Association, 75.3 percent of school districts nationwide reported “unpaid student meal debt” in spring of 2017. The issue grabbed national headlines recently in Minnesota, as a video from Richfield High School showed dozens of students’ hot lunches thrown away and substituted with a cold meal because of running lunch debts.

“One of the things we can do is model failure with grace,” Richfield High School Principal Latanya Daniels told the Minneapolis NBC affiliate KARE. “We absolutely failed in this situation and our team is working to try and rectify mistakes we made.”

East Grand Forks Public Schools has a policy similar to the one in Grand Forks. Superintendent Mike Kolness said there is a $10 limit in place for lunch debts, but “we have not denied meals.”

“There are some things in our middle school and high school where deli options might not be available, because that’s an extra purchase,” Kolness said. “But we’re really working with families to make sure that we don’t deny meals”

Emily Karel, child nutrition director at Grand Forks Public Schools, described a similar situation with a la carte lunch items in her own district.

In an email, Kolness said lunch debt totals for the school district add up to more than $14,000, though he said he was not immediately aware how many years of school lunch debt the figure included.

Though Grand Forks Public Schools’ lunch policy was described as a “pilot” program when it launched, Palmiscno is confident it will continue.

“I wouldn’t see any change on it, because it was pretty much a unanimous decision by all board members, to make sure that kids have a good lunch,” Palmiscno said.