Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes school districts prepare for free meals

Administrators hope Legislature will resolve a funding issue connected to free lunch applications

Photo illustration /

After weeks of negotiation, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill giving free lunch and breakfast to any student at any Minnesota school that participates in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program, regardless of family income.

The bill passed the House 70-58 and the Senate 38-26 before advancing to Walz's desk.

Locally, the bill will benefit many students, but with free and reduced lunch applications tied to district compensatory funding, some school officials are holding their breath that the Legislature can address the change in the next year.

For the Pine River-Backus School District, compensatory funding the district receives totals more than $1 million next year.

Pine River-Backus School District

Pine River-Backus Superintendent Jon Clark and Business Manager Jolene Bengtson have been keeping the district's school board abreast of the anticipated passage of the bill for the past several months, monitoring updates from the Minnesota School Board Association, Minnesota Rural Education Association and many other associations as they addressed the Legislature about compensatory funding.


Over half of Pine River-Backus students have traditionally qualified for free and reduced lunch.

"The last count had our district at 66% or 593 free or reduced," Bengtson wrote in an email. "The last total count was 896. So an additional 303 kids would get free meals."

As previously mentioned, free and reduced lunch applications were not only tied to the school's lunch program, but compensatory funding, an important source of the district's general funds.

In the past when free and reduced lunches were extended to other students, asking parents to continue submitting applications was not enough to protect that funding.

"The COVID years offered free meals to all students and made collecting free/reduced applications a challenge," Bengtson said. "Our October 2020 applications were so few that our Compensatory Aid for 2021-2022 was decreased to $507,000. Our October 2021 applications gave us $598,000 for 2022-23.

“These last two years we've been able to offset the lost revenue with Federal ESSER funds. We will have no way to offset another decrease to Compensatory Aid," she said.

The funding Pine River-Backus receives from compensatory aid is significant, meaning the district will be at the mercy of the government to find a solution.

"This year, food service returned to 'normal' operations by collecting applications to determine free/reduced eligibility," Bengtson said. "Our district is 65% free and reduced students. Because of the high percentage of students below income thresholds we will receive $1,439,000 in compensatory funding next year. That amount is 13% of our general fund budget."


The district will retain its compensatory funding for a year while they hope legislators find a resolution to the challenge. There is a temporary measure in place for that time period.

"Right now, HF1507/SF2017 offer a one year hold-harmless keeping our Compensatory Revenue intact for the 2024-25 budget cycle," Bengtson said."We are pushing for a long term resolution that holds Compensatory funds stable in years to come."

Pequot Lakes

With the new law, food service workers in Pequot Lakes are expecting a greater number of students to come through the line on a daily basis for a hot meal.

“If lunch is free for all, then my numbers definitely go up,” Food Service Director Patty Buell said. “We will operate the same.”

Buell said the district currently serves breakfast for roughly 1,000 students and lunch for about 1,350 — about 75% of enrolled students.

Though the cafeteria and commons can be a little crammed, Buell suspects the district will be able to manage without making any major structural or staffing changes.

“We can definitely handle more (students) as needed without any major changes,” Buell said. “Lunch lines get long. We may have to stagger classes coming to the lunch room by five minutes here and there, but nothing major.”

On the financial side, the district recently revised its yearly budget


“The food service revenue for meals has always been enough to cover annual expenses, and then COVID happened,” Business Manager Heidi Hagen said. “With all free meals for students — that includes breakfast and lunch — we are reimbursed per student per meal, based on whatever the legislation sets for that reimbursement rate.

“I would expect it's going to be similar, as far as funding goes, to what was in the COVID timeframe. For the district that means about $500,000 more in food service revenue than what we would receive if students and families had to pay for their meals.”

Superintendent Kurt Stumpf said in an email that this bill takes some of the burden not only off the district families of students already receiving lunches at a reduced rate, but also the families who applied for free and reduced meals but were denied based on income.

“Some school funding formulas are based on a school district's free and reduced lunch percentage, so schools are still waiting to see what adjustments (if any) are made to the other school funding formulas,” Stumpf said.

Stumpf said the state’s direct certification passed earlier this school year resulted in nearly 40% of students qualifying for free or reduced meals, and now those families ought to see some reduced pressure moving forward.

“Overall, free meals for all students is an advantage, and certainly a benefit for our district,” Hagen said. “We traditionally have high participation in students choosing to have a meal served at school versus bringing their own. I think it’s likely parents, including myself, would encourage their kids to choose the free meals versus having to pack their own at home.”

Travis Grimler is staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Dan Determan, sports writer/staff writer, may be reached at 218-855-5879 or . Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at .

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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