Students with unpaid lunch bills will still eat in Bemidji

Students in Bemidji, Minn., owe the school system about $15,000 for school breakfasts and lunches, but unlike many other school districts around the nation, it won’t be using the scarlet letter approach to try to get them to pay up.

The Bemidji Pioneer reports the school board in the community yesterday approved a policy that will allow the kids to keep eating nonetheless.

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

The board also gave Bemidji Middle School officials the go-ahead to apply for a $1,400 grant to pay down some of the 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.

The board also appeared to invite community organizations and individuals to step forward to help pay down the students’ debt.

Previous, the official policy of the school system, adopted in 1996, was that students with five unpaid lunches would only get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the Pioneer reports that hasn’t been followed in years.