by Mollie Rushmeyer
No one likes to think of a child going hungry or being shamed for not having money in his or her lunch account. Unfortunately, that’s the public concern in some school districts, as seen in recent headlines across the United States and even within our own state. But thankfully, in the central Minnesota school districts of St. Cloud-St. Joseph (District 742) and Sartell- St. Stephen (District 748), children and families need not fear such treatment.
St. Joseph Kennedy Elementary Principal Laurie Putnam said the district has a rule that no child will go hungry regardless of the lunch-account balance.
“We don’t withhold food,” Putnam said. “They are given the same food as everyone else, and we don’t use any shaming practices.”
Shaming practices in some schools may include children sent to the principal’s office if their lunch account is zero or negative, food taken from the child and thrown in the garbage, a stamp on the hand, or singling them out in the lunch line in front of other students.
Taking a more positive and pro-active approach, both District 742 and 748, notify families once they are below a certain amount in their lunch accounts. Parents can choose a text alert, phone call, email or all of the above, and have the option to refill the account online 24/7.
Brenda Braulick, food service director for District 748, said it’s an easy thing to do – to forget to put money into the account, especially for those families with more than one child in the district.
After a negative balance and the resultant phone calls, both districts send letters home. But both emphasize they encourage those families consistently with a negative balance to apply for the free or reduced-cost lunch program through the state to ease the financial burden. They are also encouraged to explore payment options with the districts to take care of the outstanding account.
Putnam said they make sure to bring it to the parents’ attention and never make it the child’s responsibility.
“It is a small percentage overall in the district, but for the families experiencing a tough time, it’s not a small thing,” Braulick said.
To help out this holiday season at Kennedy Elementary, Putnam said some “Christmas angels” came along and sent checks to the school for overdue lunch balances. They received a check for $100 and another for $1,000 during the last two weeks, and that money cleared up the negative accounts.
“The community has been so generous this season,” Putnam said. “It’s been great.”
Though the Sartell-St. Stephen School District hasn’t received any “Christmas angels” help yet this year, Braulick said people are certainly welcome to call the Sartell District Office and ask about giving to the “Have a Heart Fund” that helps families in need within the district.
And with all the talk in other school districts regarding wasted food, especially when there are those who are forced to discard their meals for the inability to pay, local residents may wonder what local schools do with uneaten food. Well, both 742 and 748 said they work hard at not wasting their resources.
At Kennedy Elementary, Putnam said, anything packaged or a whole fruit is rewashed and redistributed (following all protocols for safety and cleanliness). Then whatever cannot be redistributed but is still safe for consumption is packed up for families in need within the school. All families are provided with the information to sign up for these free meals to bring home. She said they’re very discreet and package them so the child can bring them home and no one knows.
At Sartell-St. Stephen schools, Braulick said several things happen to uneaten food. Any food waste not safe for human consumption, meaning it’s open and touched or bitten into, is sent to Barthold Farms Inc. in St. Francis for hog feed. They are also trying another food recycling venture at the Sartell Middle School, where they save food waste for Tri-County Organics in St. Cloud for making compost. Anything throughout the week that is packaged food or something they can sanitize and re-use, gets redistributed. Then every Friday, Salvation Army picks up food items that are safe to eat for the people at the shelter.
With so many negative stories out there about school-lunch programs, it can be overwhelming to think any of those things could happen in our backyard. But both school districts said they hope this sheds some light on what happens if children come to school with no money in their accounts and what happens to the food after they’ve had their fill so the focus can be on education.
“We want everyone to have a good, balanced meal to get their brains ready to learn,” Braulick said.
Rushmeyer grew up in the Brainerd Lakes area then moved to St. Cloud to attend St. Cloud State University, pursuing a degree in community psychology and family dynamics. She now resides in Rice with her husband and their two daughters. Rushmeyer became a freelance reporter/ photographer with the Newsleaders in 2016, but her love of the written word started as a child. When she’s not writing news articles, she blogs, writes flash fiction, short stories and novels. She has been to Europe several times and enjoys travelling, spending time with her family, getting outdoors and reading.