FARGO — A community conversation on school lunches on Monday, Oct. 14, attempted to come up with solutions so all children in the Fargo district can receive a hot meal at noon, regardless of income.
Although a few suggestions might take some time, Superintendent of Schools Rupak Gandhi said he would support a change in policy where parents who can't pay aren't referred to social services agencies or school social workers or to collection agencies.
He said he would run it past the school board, but he can make the changes administratively.
However, to make hot lunches "universal," as most of the 60 people at the gathering at the Fargo Labor Temple supported, the group suggested perhaps using some of the money in the state's $6.6 billion Legacy Fund or starting a petition for a ballot initiative measure that would force the state's hands into making sure all children statewide are fed hot meals at schools.
Union member Jeremy Pearson said he believes just by having the state's union members sign the petition they could get the 14,000 signatures needed to put it on the 2020 ballot.
State Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, who was joined at the meeting by other Fargo Democratic legislators, urged people to show up at meetings on the North Dakota State University campus where a committee is taking testimony on how the state's Legacy Fund created by oil tax revenue should be spent. The meetings are at the Alumni Center from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 12 and 8:30 a.m. to noon Nov. 13
As far as the state Legislature providing funding in other ways to cover the school lunch needs, state Rep. Karla Rose Hanson said there is a "contingency" of state legislators that believe government shouldn't play a role in such issues. She said, as an example, there is an alarming trend in the state where rural grocery stores are closing and she said one of her colleagues told her that "no one's died yet."
So while the conversation over a statewide ballot measure or Legacy Fund money to help keep school lunch funds solvent will continue, the meeting ended with a Facebook group called Lunch Aid. Led by Jason Boynton, an NDSU professor, and Kari Lugo, Lunch Aid held a 10-band musical fundraiser this past summer, presenting the school district with a check for $19,455 to help cover the Fargo school's current lunch program debt of $30,000.
Lugo said the group will probably have a similar fundraiser next year to help pay the debt again, until another way to help can be found.
Gandhi and school board Vice Chairman John Rodenbiker said the school's current policy of referring those who can't pay over to social services or debt collection was meant as a way to have some "parental responsibility" in place so their children weren't neglected. They also wanted to make sure families knew of options that were available to them.
Gandhi said the school does, however, also have a policy that every student is provided a hot lunch every school day, but those in debt are still sent notices and a bill. Currently, he provided statistics that show in the last school year, 32% of students were eligible for free or reduced lunches, but that the number is increasing.
During a presentation to the group, AFL-CIO field director Andrew Bushaw presented the group with a number of facts and figures, saying 75% of school districts nationwide have a similar problem and 40% are seeing the problem growing.
He said with costs of living going up, wages stagnating and access to help dropping, the situation is getting worse. He said of Fargo's $30,000 in lunch debt, $16,000 was turned over to collections, but only $260 has been collected.
In looking at a few other districts, he said West Fargo and Mandan, N.D., don't guarantee a hot meal to students if bills aren't paid.
Grand Forks, he said, is the only big district that provides meals with no policy on debt collection or social service referrals, but that's thanks to a huge donation by the women's hockey stars Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, whose foundation provided funds to cover students there this school year will their meal of choice when families are experiencing financial hardship.