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Don’t forget your lunch money

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news Worthington, 56187
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

WINDOM — A majority of public school districts in Minnesota deny hot lunch — or any lunch in some cases — to children who can’t afford it.

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In a survey released last week by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, 46 Minnesota school districts told Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid that they immediately or eventually refuse to feed students who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts.

More than half the districts in the state — 166 of them — provide an alternative meal, typically a cold cheese sandwich, once the money runs out.

Another 96 school districts provide a hot lunch regardless of a child’s ability to pay.

According to a statement issued by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, Legal Aid has been advocating for six years to prohibit the “unacceptable” practice of denying hot lunch to low-income children who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts.

About 62,000 low-income children and teens take part in Minnesota’s reduced price lunch program.

The program states that for 40 cents, they get a hot nutritious lunch with the remainder of the cost covered by public funds.

However, if students fail to come up with even 40 cents, some schools respond by denying or downgrading students’ lunches, as Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid discovered when it surveyed 309 public school districts.

Of the 46 districts listed as having a policy of an immediate or eventual refusal to serve food to a child who cannot afford the 40 cent copay, Windom Public School District was on the list.

“Once a student’s lunch account gets to $20 we start sending letters to parents,” said Wayne Wormstadt, Superintendent at Windom Area Schools. “We let students get to negative $75 and they are still allowed a hot meal.”

Wormstadt also stated that regular phone calls as well as emails and letters are sent to parents with a negative balance.

“You can look at our negative balance sheet at any given time and see that we are between $2,000 to $4,000 in negative balances,” Wormstadt added. “However, we do allow parents to do a payment plan.”

“So do kids get denied a hot lunch, eventually if our notices are ignored, yes, but it takes a very long time and it normally doesn’t come to that and some kids do transition to cold lunch that they bring from home,” explained Wormstadt. “For example the week of Feb. 10, of all the calls we made to families with negative balances, only one family did not respond, but most do respond.”

“I have heard of districts who start denying kids hot lunches earlier than we do; it just depends on the district,” Wormstadt added.

The state could expand the free lunch program to all students who now receive reduced-price lunch for an estimated $3.35 million.

The Legislature debated such an expansion last session, but the proposal failed to make its way into the education budget bill. Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, is preparing to push the bill again next year.

Daily Globe Reporter Erin Trester may be reached at 376-7322.

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