School will not let kids go hungry

FAIRMONT – No child in the Fairmont public schools will be denied a meal, even if their lunch account is in arrears, Superintendent Joe Brown told the school board on Tuesday.

His comments were prompted by an article published Monday in a Twin Cities newspaper, focusing on the procedure public schools use to provide or deny a meal to students with negative lunch account balances.

The article cited a report compiled by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid of the 309 public school districts in Minnesota. A few of them – 46 – reported a practice or policy of an immediate or eventual refusal to serve a hot lunch or alternative meal to a child who cannot pay, while 97 of the districts always provide a full hot lunch to a low-income child, even if the child cannot afford the fee.

Fairmont is among the 166 districts offering less nutritious alternative meals in lieu of providing a hot lunch or turning a child away.

“If a student goes into the negative [for their lunch account], we provide the child with a cheese sandwich and a glass of milk,” Brown said. “We don’t take away food.”

Brown was referring to a recent incident in the news involving about 40 Utah school students with delinquent accounts who had their hot meals taken away and discarded.

In Fairmont, when a child’s lunch account falls below $5, parents are contacted via email and telephone. Parents are contacted again when the account goes into the red. When the account reaches minus $5, the child will receive a sandwich and milk.

“How often do we do this? It ranges from one to five kids a day,” said Brown, reminding the board that there are almost 1,700 students in the two public schools.

Of the 907 students at Fairmont Elementary, 443 pay the full lunch price of $2.50, while 79 pay a reduced price of 40 cents. Free meals are provided to 385 students, and all students have the option of a free breakfast at the school, regardless of income.

Of the 790 students at Fairmont Junior-Senior High School, 534 pay the full lunch price of $2.60, while 194 get the reduced price of 40 cents. Free meals are provided for 62 students.

Which students fall under the free or reduced program is known only to one person in student accounting, Brown said.

“This is the most confidential piece of data we have,” he said. “I don’t even have access to it.”

Brown provided board members with a copy of the letter sent to all parents in the student registration packet that was mailed in July. The letter explained the breakfast and lunch programs and included application forms for free and reduced lunches, but families can apply at any time, not just at the beginning of the school year, if their income drops.

“If your family circumstances change, you can always come in and apply for assistance,” said Diane Gerhardt, board chairwoman. “That’s what those programs are for.”

This week, Brown received an anonymous letter with $60 cash enclosed. The letter, signed “a taxpayer and veteran,” instructed Brown to use the money for lunches for his neighbor’s two children. If the children couldn’t be located, the money was to be used for another needy child’s lunch fund.

Some school districts have so-called “angel funds” for needy students, Brown said, and he encouraged other people who might be inclined to donate to include their name so they can receive a receipt and the district’s thanks.

In other business, the board:

o Was reminded that Monday will be a make-up snow day.

o Heard about the high school’s production of “Steel Magnolias” to take place 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a senior matinee at 12:30 p.m. today.

o Accepted a donation of $460 from the Lakesters for the high school robotics program and $75 from Shawna O’Hair for the graphic arts class.

o Approved Blake Crosby as a long-term substitute first grade teacher starting Feb. 7 for about six weeks.

o Approved Maleah Pedersen as a long-term substitute kindergarten teacher from late March through the end of the school year.