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School lunch report misses big picture, District 833 officials say

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but District 833 administrators said that elementary school students who can’t pay for a hot lunch don’t go without one.

Last month, South Washington County Schools was listed among more than 160 districts in the state that would “not always guarantee hot lunch to a reduced price student who cannot afford the 40-cent fee.”

These students were served a “less nutritious alternative” such as a cheese or peanut butter sandwich, according to a report issued by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid.

“Legal Aid will continue to advocate for state legislation to protect Minnesota’s poorest children from being turned away or offered less nutritious alternatives,” the report said. “Expanding free lunch to all reduced-price eligible children will guarantee a nutritious hot lunch to an additional 61,000 Minnesota children statewide.”

The report drew quick responses from school districts, Gov. Mark Dayton and lawmakers. The Minnesota House earlier this month approved funding to ensure any child can receive a meal.

However, the report didn’t tell the whole story in District 833, officials said. Except for “extremely rare” cases, District 833 allows students whose lunch accounts are depleted to eat anyway, thanks to the school’s Angel Fund.

The district cited the fund in a news release on its website in response to the report.

“Each school in South Washington County Schools operates an Angel Fund that allows students to purchase a complete school lunch when their account balance runs out,” according to the district website. “This is important to note, given that according to a much publicized report recently released by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, District 833 is listed as one of 166 districts in Minnesota that offer less nutritious alternative meals in lieu of providing a school lunch or turning a child away.”

The Angel Fund is supported with contributions from teachers, staff and community members. It  goes through the district for disbursement to the Nutrition Services Department, who match each dollar, said Director of Communications Barb Brown.

Parents of students who benefit from the fund are asked to replenish the funds.

“That and the donations combined seem to keep it strong,” Brown said in an email.

District 833 does not charge lunch in its middle or high schools. But their official policy states that elementary students are allowed to charge two lunches and one breakfast.

If a student’s account is negative, the cashier will call the parent each day the student has to charge a lunch. If no payment is received, and there is no money in the Angel Fund, the cashier will inform the parent that only a sandwich will be provided at the next lunch.

District 833 administrators say they only enforce their official policy as a last resort.

“We do have the policy that said an alternative meal will be provided,” said Kathryn Grafsgaard, director of Nutrition Services. “However, that really wasn’t happening in practice.”

Grafsgaard said the report’s statistics present an incomplete picture of their efforts to help children who have no money in their lunch accounts.  

“The survey really didn’t give us the true opportunity to tell our story about all the extraordinary work we do,” Grafsgaard said. “Our cashiers have a strong departmental role and are really proactive working with parents to make sure there is funding.”

Grafsgaard said she surveyed the 22 schools in District 833 and discovered there were five times in the past 12 months when students were given a different lunch because they couldn’t pay.

But that was five times too many, according to Jessica Webster, the staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid who authored the report.

She bristled at suggestions that the report lacked a broader context and portrayed District 833 as uncaring.

“We don’t think it’s unfair how they were categorized,” she said of District 833.

After the report was made public, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius expressed her concern in a letter to district superintendents. Dayton urged state legislators to add $3.5 million to provide school lunches.

The report also listed 46 school districts as either condoning, in theory or practice, the outright denial of a meal to a child who could not pay, according to the report

Grafsgaard wouldn’t rule out a change in the lunch policy at District 833.

“In practice we’re feeding kids,” she said. “I think a review of the policy and perhaps a formalization of the policy will happen down the road.”

Those who wish to donate to the Angel Fund should contact their school or the district’s Nutrition Services Department at 651-458-6280.