Families who owe a balance for Mora school lunches will need to bring their accounts positive prior to the beginning of the school year, according to a new policy required by the United States Department of Agriculture.

At its Thursday, July 27, meeting the Mora School Board voted unanimously to accept a policy addressing unpaid meal charges for students. Last year the USDA required all participating school districts to create an unpaid meal charge policy. Mora’s new policy is based on one recommended by the Minnesota School Board Association, though school board chair Karen Kirschner said most elements of the policy have been in place for quite a while.

“Unpaid accounts in Mora Schools are actually minimal. Superintendent Craig Schultz said that there were about five students owing balances of $5-7. In no way is this policy intended to single anyone out. Sometimes it’s a situation where the parents just forget. Hopefully this’ll preclude kids from being stigmatized due to family situations,” said Kirschner.

The purpose of the new policy is to ensure that students receive healthy and nutritious meals, and that school district employees, students and families have a shared understanding of expectations regarding meal charges. The policy seeks to provide students the needed nutrition to stay focused during the school day, minimize identification of students without the funds to pay for school meals and maintain the financial integrity of the school nutrition plan.

A negative balance of more than $5.00 not paid prior to the beginning of the school year will result in the student not being allowed to use the school lunch program until the balance is brought positive. Families can add money to their students’ accounts through the district website, through telephone payments or by sending in cash or a check.

A student with an outstanding debt may purchase a meal if he or she pays for it when received. The student will not be allowed to charge items from the ala carte program. And the district may provide an alternate meal to a student without a sufficient balance or cash.

The district notifies families via email, phone calls or letters if balances get low. Students may be reminded by staff as they go through the food line, or notes may be sent home. However, reminders for payment of outstanding balances will not demean or stigmatize any participating student.

Kirschner said that food service director Barbara Fredrickson has worked tirelessly to bring the district’s food budget into the black.

“We encourage families to find out if they qualify for free or reduced-cost student lunches. However, kids don’t want others to know if their families fall at or below that threshold. We make options available for families to apply at back-to-school events, with other required paperwork, so they don’t feel singled out or put on the spot,” Kirschner said.

“We’re in very good shape, using practical approaches that avoid making a student stand out about this. We’re more than willing to do what we can.”

Scott McKinney is a contributing writer for the Kanabec County Times and Braham Journal coordinator.