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Who qualifies for free, reduced-cost lunches

Schools try different tacks to collect on lunches -- one stamped childrens' hands

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In early December, some young students from Win-E-Mac School in Erskine, Minn., returned home with their hands stamped.

It was a reminder to their parents that their lunch accounts were delinquent. Win-E-Mac had tried phone calls, emails, letters and even home visits, but found those efforts not effective, according to Superintendent Randy Bruer.

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About a dozen of the school's 430 students got the stamps.

"It's amazing how quickly they responded," Bruer said.

Community members were equally responsive. They complained the practice humiliates children, and the timing of the announcement was a little off, too -- a newsletter noting the change appeared in mailboxes shortly after the Connecticut school massacre, said Bruer. The shooter had been a social outcast in school.

After only a week and a half, the district stopped stamping, Bruer said. For now, the school is "going to research other methods available to us," he said.

School districts in North Dakota and Minnesota have struggled with the delicate issue of delinquent lunch accounts, which some believe puts children in the middle. Hand stamping is one of the ways districts have tried to manage the issue.

Grand Forks schools offer parents a choice, and hand stamping is still an option. East Grand Forks schools switched from hand stamping to automated calls. The Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (Minn.) School District still stamps hands. But all the schools said they had not received complaints.

Win-E-Mac was inspired to try hand stamping by the Dilworth elementary school and other Minnesota schools, Bruer said.

TACTICS VARY

Minnesota school districts have a variety of approaches, some harsher than hand stamping, according to a survey by Legal Aid, a Minnesota group that works on behalf of low-income people.

Of 182 districts that replied to the survey, 30 stop feeding children whose parents don't pay, 17 use collection agencies, 16 have some sort of deterrence policy such as hand stamping or withholding diplomas. Some provide alternative lunches, and only 22 provide unlimited hot meals.

Many said the problem stems from parents' lack of organization, and not because families are scared of the stigma of free or reduced-price lunches.

Under 2012-2013 federal requirements, a family of four earning $29,965 or less a year is eligible for free meals. If they earn $42,643 or less, they can receive reduced-price meals.

NO STIGMA?

Stigma appears not to be an issue in the Dilworth school.

Kristi Hovde, a food service secretary who works there, said children want the red apple mark on their hand.

"Sometimes, the kid behind them will say, 'How much money do I have? Do I get a stamp?'" she said.

Although parents there can also receive email prompts, they seem to welcome the stamp because it's something they can see, and they notice it, she said.

"A lot of parents don't make payments on a monthly basis, (so) if they see the stamp, it prompts them," she said.

Children will get stamped if their account is at $7 or less, and their parents will receive a call when the account reaches zero. If a parent still doesn't provide payment by the next morning, an alternative meal of a peanut butter sandwich, salad bar and milk will be provided for the child. The meal will cost the same, she said.

"They're never turned away. They will eat, it's just not probably exactly what they'd like," she said. "I think that kind of hits home more."

At Grand Forks Public Schools, students have a choice -- they can get a stamp, a note or their parents can go online to check the balance, said Julie Tunseth, food services director.

The district started stamping in 1991 after switching to a computerized system. Stamps effectively replaced notes, which would be handed out to students at lunch time and often end up in the garbage, she said.

"Some wanted the stamp, some parents are OK with it," she said. "We just asked students. Do you want a stamp or a slip to take home, or will you remember?"

AUTOMATION

In East Grand Forks, the practice of stamping hands stopped just last year, replaced by automated phone calls. Of the 788 students enrolled in East Grand Forks elementary schools, only about 3 to 4 percent usually have negative balances in their lunch accounts.

Karen Pickett, food service director, said the district likely won't go back to stamping. However, she'd heard no complaints about stamping in the six years she's worked there.

"I guess it's how each parent perceives it," she said. "If my kid would get stamped, I knew what it meant."

Food service directors say tracking empty lunch accounts can also create more work for school employees, as the visits and calls add up.

Some managers work with families to prevent delinquent accounts, Tunseth said.

"It's a tough deal," she said. "It's not the kids' fault they don't have the money, but it's not the schools' responsibility, either. It's most effective if parents manage it."

Call Johnson at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send e-mail to jjohnson@gfherald.com.

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