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Policy on school lunch eliminates using debt collectors, reporting child abuse

Grand Forks Public Schools leaders have scrapped proposals to tap debt collectors and child abuse reporting to address negative lunch balances.

A School Board committee approved a draft for child nutrition account balances that guides the Child Nutrition Program when it comes to negative balances for school lunches. The draft, which must be approved by the full School Board, states children who have a negative balance of $50 will receive a soybutter sandwich with jelly, an apple or banana and milk, otherwise known as a nonchoice meal, instead of a hot lunch.

"These meals will be provided at no cost until the account is replenished with adequate funds for continued meal service," the proposed policy states. "Attempts to contact the family will be made twice before the nonchoice meal is provided."

The district must form a policy after the U.S. Department of Agriculture required child nutrition programs across the U.S. to address negative meal balances. Grand Forks' draft policy states automated emails or text messages would be sent to parents after a child's balance goes $5 in the hole. Reminders would continue to be sent to parents, whether through letters from school cooks or messages.

After children reach negative $30, a referral could be made to social workers, counselors and administration to get involved.

The most noticeable change is deleting language that suggested using debt collectors to resolve the issue or reporting suspected child abuse or neglect if the negative balances persist.

School Board leaders were leery of using such practices because they appeared punitive and negative.

If a student receives more than three nonchoice meals with no contact from the family to discuss a repayment plan, the district would continue to provide those meals indefinitely until the debt is resolved, the draft policy said.

Addressing negative lunch balances across the U.S. attracted national media attention, particularly reports that students felt embarrassed when given soybutter sandwich meals or stamps on hands to remind parents they need lunch money.

Grand Forks discontinued its stamp practice in the fall, but there was discussion about bringing it back.

Communicating with children and parents was more effective than doing nothing at all, local Child Nutrition Director Emily Karel said. She understood concerns about causing children anxiety when informing them about a negative balance, but sending a reminder home—whether using notes or stamps on hands—helped.

"I think a lot of this boils down to communication," she said.

Some children who didn't have negative balances but saw students getting stamps wanted one as well, Karel said.

"From the kid aspect, it was never seen as a negative," she said.

If approved by the School Board, the policy would be put into letter form to be sent out to parents.

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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