WESTBROOK, Minnesota (STPNS) --     WWG — Recently school lunch programs have been making a fair amount of news, not only nationally but in the state as well. Issues with the lunch program came to light when kids in a Utah school  were embarrassed as their lunch trays were taken from them in the lunch room then dumped into the trash.

    Since that time there has been a lot of press given to the subject the past couple of weeks regarding reports of many districts not allowing students accounts  to become in arrears.

    According to published accounts from the State Education Department. About 62,000 low-income children  and teens take part in Minnesota’s reduced-price lunch program. That should mean that for 40 cents, they get a hot, nutritious lunch, with the remainder of the cost covered by public funds.

    Schools in the state have a variety of policies regarding how they handle students that have negative balance in their hot lunch accounts.

    Forty six districts have policies that immediately or eventually refuse to feed students who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts. More than half the districts in the state provide an alternative meal of a cold sandwich and milk.

    Some schools will pull lunch trays from a student if there is not enough money in their account. Most schools however will give the students something to eat no matter what. About a quarter of the districts will give a hot lunch no matter whether the student can pay or not.

    About four or five years ago, at Westbrook Walnut Grove Public School,  the board approved allowing for students to be given a cold lunch when their accounts become negative. At the time the school lunch program was losing about three to four thousand dollars a year.

    Superintendent Loy Woelber said “the board and I decided we could no longer justify writing off that much money every year.”    

    A program was developed to address the problem.  It was discovered that a lot of families were not signing up for the free and reduced lunch program. It became a priority to get as many eligible families as possible to sign up for those benefits.

    “One of the problems was that  some  of the parents were getting so far behind  it was difficult for them to catch up,” Woelber said. “We now have a computer system that informs parents before they get behind.” Full pay students pay $45.00 a month, parents are notified when their account becomes a negative $10.00. Reduced program students pay 40 cents per meal, and are notified when they become $2.00 in the negative.

    Woelber said, “after the initial start of the program, there are very few students who fall in the negative to the point they would receive a cold sandwich and milk.”

    Kathy Phillips is in charge of the  program, and checks the students out as they come through the lunch line.

    She said our program is set up so every student is given a 3 digit pin number to punch in after they go through the lunch line. As they do that the computer tallies up if they are in arrears or not.

    However, before they go through the line they are warned by having their pin number on a dry erase board before they enter the lunch line. So students know whether or not they should go through the line.

    Phillips said, “the system works very well and there are very few times that a student is denied a hot lunch. There are probably only two or three students that receive a sack lunch per quarter.”

    Phillips chuckled one time when a student came up to her and asked her if it was OK to go through the line because her number was on the board. Phillips told her, no that was not her number so it was OK.

    She also said occasionally when a student sees their name on the board they will buy something off the Ala Carte table.

    Woelber said, “Our lunch room staff at both sites are really great at providing healthy and nutritious meals. We make considerations for kids with special dietary needs, such as dairy intolerant, or gluten free alternatives.”

    Along with a great hot lunch program, healthy snacks are provided for kids in the  elementary school, helping  kids to learn more healthy eating habits. A breakfast is offered at both schools, and in Walnut Grove there is a free summer lunch program for any kid eighteen and under.

    “We would never take a tray away from a student, let alone dump it  in the garbage. Our system is set up to discretely handle students whose accounts have become negative. We work with families that are having problems. The last thing we want is for students to become embarrassed because their lunch fund goes into the negative,” Woelber said.

    Recently Governor Mark Dayton pledged to include $3.5 million in his supplemental budget request “to  insure that no Minnesota student is denied access to a hot meal at lunch time.” Legislative leaders returning to the session have similarly vowed to make lunch funding a priority.