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District makes it official: All students receive meals regardless of debt

BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Area Schools approved on Monday a set of school lunch policies that insist all students be provided a lunch regardless of how much money is in their school lunch account.

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BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Area Schools approved on Monday a set of school lunch policies that insist all students be provided a lunch regardless of how much money is in their school lunch account.

Students can continue to eat regular meals even as their meal debt grows, and staff there regularly work to help families apply for federal free and reduced-price meal programs and write off some students’ debt entirely. Students with negative account balances aren’t allowed to purchase a la carte snacks such as cookies or frozen yogurt or charge an additional entree or extra portions, but existing-albeit-unofficial practice and the new policy say they’ll always get a meal regardless of their account status.

“We don't deny a first breakfast or first lunch to any student,” said Tammie Colley, the district’s food and nutrition service coordinator.

Students owe the district about $15,000 this year in unpaid lunches, but that total can go down dramatically if and when residents or community-minded organizations donate to a purpose-built “angel fund” to pay down student meal debts. The board on Monday also gave Bemidji Middle School staff permission to apply for a $1,400 grant to help families pay down their meal account balances.

The district’s website lists a 1996 board policy that dictates that students with five unpaid meal charges will only receive a peanut butter sandwich and milk, but district staff said they haven’t operated under that guideline.

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“We do not substitute,” Colley said. “You would get the regular menu’d meal.”

The newly adopted guidelines are the result of a federal-level school lunch policy rewrite that requires districts to put forth a policy like the one Bemidji codified and comes after unflattering news coverage of the way other school districts around the country handle student meal debt.

“Some districts, I think, mistakenly had policies where they would put a sticky note on the kid's hand or write a note and say, 'Your kid needs lunch money. Make sure you send it or he won't be eating,’” Superintendent Jim Hess told the Pioneer. “There are other districts where, again, mistakenly, they would single the kids out, put them in a different line, have them eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches rather than the regular school lunch.”

Bemidji Area Schools’ new policy explicitly seeks to allow students to receive proper nutrition and “minimize identification” of those who can’t pay for their meals while maintaining the financial integrity of the district’s nutrition program.

In other news:

The School Board spoke for about 45 minutes with freshmen state lawmakers Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, and Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, whose first legislative session last spring helped shape the school district’s financial future over the next two years.

In addition to a smattering of policy changes, legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton agreed to increase the state’s per-pupil funding formula by 2 percent this fiscal year and another 2 percent the fiscal year after that. The funding formula generates the bulk of public schools’ annual revenue, but board members on Monday spoke equally highly of an increase in “transportation sparsity revenue” that benefits rural districts like Bemidji’s, where transportation departments have to clear a series of logistical hurdles and often operate at a deficit. Documents at last month’s board meeting indicated the district will receive another $118,000 in state revenue because of the legislative changes.

Hess praised Bliss and Grossell for getting -- and keeping -- the sparsity revenue into the final E-12 bill, and board chair Ann Long Voelkner indicated she hoped for more in upcoming sessions.

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“Every little bit helps,” she told the representatives.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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