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Katie Dachtler: Mind budget, but not on backs of kids

By Katie Dachtler

I applaud the work the Grand Forks School Board put into crafting the updated lunch account policy. However, the decision to move forward allowing students a choice in their meals despite their lunch balance continues to concern me as the current decision was only for a one-year trial.

I understand budgets are finite and that funding is questionable in regards to the Legislature. However, I do not believe, nor did I believe as a board member, that we should be making these decisions on the backs of our students and their families. As a former lunch policy committee member, I strongly advocated for lunch choice regardless of the status of a child's lunch account. As a parent, a PTO board member for Winship Elementary, as an employee who works with families navigating difficult times and accessing government assistance such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and as a community member, I believe that our community is willing to support the district in ensuring our students are not only filling their nutritional needs but are able to do so with dignity. Should a child choose a soy butter sandwich for lunch as opposed to turkey tidbits or walking taco, that is perfectly fine, as it is their choice. However, to not allow a child to choose their lunch because the district has decided that the potential of parental misuse outweighs a student's dignity, we are doing it wrong.

I believe Mrs. Karel's statements that "school lunch is a choice" far misses the mark of what some of our students' actual situations are and what life experiences they are actually living. Just last year we had 250 students identifying as homeless. Yes, many of those families are working with our teachers, our social workers, counselors and school staff to get back on their feet, but we are not able to catch all of the families and all of the students. And even then, there's confusion, mistrust and sometimes even fear of accessing certain programs for a litany of reasons I won't go into here.

With all the uncertainty that these 250 students faced during their school year, should the shame of having to rely on school lunch as a main source of nutrition be thrown back into their face as "a choice?" Certainly, I would say not.

The Grand Forks Chair Affair was held Sept. 13 and was an event created to focus on fundraising monies to support students whose accounts would go over and be subjected to non-choice meals. It was a wonderful event that only emphasized our community's dedication to ensuring hunger be the last thing on our students' minds. It should be noted that funding does already exist within the district's budget to support students with overdue lunch accounts. It also should be mentioned that local PTOs, private citizens, student organizations, public and private agencies, nonprofit and for profit organizations could and would rally behind students with fundraisers, cash donations and other such support should such an ungodly amount of families take advantage of such a system and the account run dry. Perhaps the district should look to cost savings in areas such as food waste in order to trim the budget prior to penalizing our students. Wouldn't the addition of a "share" table or excess food to take home at the end of the day be serving both purposes without shaming anyone?

A policy is not something that is set in stone. A policy is a living document that may be crafted and messaged in a way that best fits the entity it serves. With that said, I believe the Grand Forks Public School Board should be creating policies that directly and lastingly impact our students and their futures with their best interest in mind as the bottom line.

Always mind the budget; that's the fiscally responsible thing to do. But do not ever do it on the backs of our children.

Katie Dachtler is a former member of the Grand Forks School Board and now serves on the City Council.