Lunch Denied: Policies vary from school to school

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MENOMONIE, Wis. (WEAU) – It’s an issue that’s gained momentum recently: lunch trays being taken away from children at school.

In Utah, a school district came under fire for taking lunches away from students whose lunch accounts went in the negative. In Minnesota, a new survey from Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid found 46 school districts have policies reserving the right to refuse food.

Now a Menomonie mom says she can relate.

Last week, Jewel Aasen said her son was denied lunch at Menomonie High School, because she forgot to pay the bill.

Some parents see it as a form of punishment. But what if the child was older, in high school? The Menomonie Area School District said high school students have greater responsibility and some parents argue children deserve a meal, no matter what.

“My son Taylor called me and he told me he was getting his lunch taken away from him and he needed money for his food account,” said Aasen. “So I hung up with him and I attempted to reach the food service to pay over the phone. I realized I’d forgotten to send the check with him.”

Aasen said she found herself in an unfortunate position that perhaps many parents come across; forgetting to send the check. Her son's lunch bill was past due, he didn't have any money and despite multiple warnings to pay the bill, her son didn't get a lunch.

She said she made multiple attempts to get a hold of the school but had no luck. Turns out, in some area high schools, a past due lunch bill means your child will not eat. While Aasen was hoping they would extend her son's balance by a couple of dollars, the school took a hard stand.

“When you get to the high school level after multiple warnings and reminders, then at some point lunch will be set aside and most students will borrow money from adults and or another student for the day,” said superintendent of Menomonie Area School District Chris Stratton.

Stratton said later in the day, Aasen got a call back from several workers at the school and they eventually worked it out. She said warning emails and phone calls are sent out to parents when accounts reach $10.

“They will receive verbal warnings in the line that their accounts are negative and they need to remember to bring in money,” said Stratton. “In the elementary schools we even will then make phone calls home to further remind parents, so we definitely are attentive to any students of any age that we believe is in anyway being harmed by not having a nutritious lunch.”

She said in high school, students also get multiple warnings, but they hold students to higher level of responsibility.

It's a similar policy at the Eau Claire Area School District where kids start to learn about responsibility in middle and high school.

“When the balance gets low on their accounts, we start handing them a note in line. But at middle and high school, students are responsible for knowing what their balance is. At high school, students are more independent and they can borrow money from their friend,” said Sue Brown, RD, nutrition director for the Eau Claire Area School District.

Elementary students for the district get five meals into the negative. After that, they get a peanut butter or cheese sandwich. Middle school students get up to three meals in the hole, but past that, they have to call their parents to get money into the account.

Students who are on the reduced meal program at both Eau Claire and Menomonie would get alternative meals eventually.

“We really do understand the importance of good nutrition and how important that is to learning and overall health and wellbeing of student success and achievement,” said Brown.

In Colfax and Chippewa Falls, students are also given at least a sandwich when their account goes negative.

“If for any reason a child does go negative $2.25 in the minus, a peanut butter sandwich and a carton of milk is provided as an alternative lunch,” said Diane Rasmussen, assistant food services director for Chippewa Falls Area Unified School District.

“We don't turn anyone away and not give them something to eat regardless of the balance. We try to work with families like I said, but we won’t turn anyone away as far as not giving them a sandwich or meal,” said Superintendent William Yingst with the Colfax School District.

According to the Menomonie school board policy, "UDSA regulations do allow students other than those who qualify for free meals to be denied a meal if their account balance is negative and they do not have money in hand necessary to pay for a current day's meal."

Aasen said she should've remembered to deposit the money, but wishes there could have been better communication the day her son’s lunch was taken away and also wishes Taylor could've at least had fruit or a sandwich.

“It was 100 percent my fault. I wanted to take accountability for that that. I just forgot to send a check with him so that’s why at the last minute I was trying to get through so he could have his lunch,” said Aasen.

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