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Husky Angel Fund resumes accepting donations

The nationwide federal free lunch program ended at the beginning of this school year, and while some states opted to extend the universal free school lunch through the 2022-23 school year, Minnesota was not among them.

Because students and families are back paying for their lunches, the Husky Angel Fund has resumed collecting donations.

This fund, maintained by the school district’s nutrition services department, has been in the schools formally as the “Husky Angel Fund’’ for at least five years, yet it has been helping families in the district for much longer. It was established to support the many families who had fallen on hard times and could not keep funds in the student’s meal account, according to the Director of Nutrition Services Sarah Brooks.

With the end of the Federal Free Lunch program, nearly $11,000 is lunch debt has already accumulated throughout the Owatonna school district. (Photo courtesy of Owatonna Public Schools)

“For a while, we didn’t have a need because we had more than enough in the fund to pay off everything so every student, regardless of their eligibility for the free and reduced lunch program, had a fresh start,” she said.

Brooks said within the last two years, the angel fund was able to completely pay off more than $12,000 worth of student lunch debt across the district, leaving no student with an outstanding balance. Since the end of the federal program and as of December, the lunch balance across the district has already accumulated nearly $11,000 in debt.

Changing circumstances

“Every family is different and has different circumstances,” Brooks said. “Having the balance go up again was not unexpected.”

She said sometimes families who do not qualify for the free lunch program when a school year first begins could fall on hard times, qualifying them later into the year. If that happens, their negative balance remains despite their new status as a qualifier.

She also said with inflation affecting nearly every facet of our lives, so has meal prices, causing school lunches to increase this year. For meals, a rate increase for breakfast will be $0.20 a meal for students and $0.25 a meal for adults, as well as a rate increase of $0.10 for extra milk. The last time students saw an increase in breakfast prices was in the 2016-17 school year, and lunch prices were increased slightly the following year. Despite the slight increase, the prices for meals in the district remain about $0.15 below the state average of $2.75 per meal.

Feeding the fund

The fund is almost entirely supported through donations from the public. It is also funded through the departure of students from the district — whether by relocation or graduation — and has a remaining balance in their meal accounts. According to Owatonna School District policy, that money is transferred to the fund unless otherwise directed by the student’s family, but Brooks said more families opt to donate those funds back to the students who need it versus those who don’t.

“Many families choose to donate any remaining dollars back to the Husky Angel Fund, and we are sure to highlight that as an option for them when their student graduates,” Brooks said. “It’s amazing to see people’s generosity with that.”

Despite having more than $10,000 in debt, Brooks said the fund is currently holding just over $3,000 in donations. Of that, $1,318 was recently donated by two young students, Max and Zack Fink. The boys were featured during December’s School Board meeting as the monthly Mission Moment.

The boys, along with their family and neighborhood friends, are responsible for the 16th Street Holiday Drive-Through, which collected donations to split between the Husky Fund and Real Life.

Max Fink, a 4th grade student presented the school board with a check for $1,318 to be donated to the Husky Angel Fund on behalf of 16th St. SE. Fink, along with his family and neighbors raised money during their annual holiday drive-through to donate to local organizations. (Photo courtesy of Owatonna Public Schools)

“Max and Zack have done their fair share helping out with this project,” Superintendent Jeff Elstad said. “This is part of our directive for a safe and caring community. It’s about caring for your community and giving back and as second and fourth grade students, you are setting an example not only for your students in your schools but all of our students in Owatonna and the adults in our community as well. Thank you.”

Max and Zack were eager to present the check to the school board on behalf of their neighborhood.

“We hope this will help some families in our schools,” said Zack, who is in second grade.

Qualifying families

Brooks said each year, the state updates income guidelines for families who may qualify for free and reduced lunch. She also said the name of that program is a bit of a misnomer because, regardless of income, any student who qualifies receives meals at no cost.

“Students who qualify still get every meal at no cost,” she said. “The state just covers the difference versus federal dollars. Not every state does this, but Minnesota does.”

She also said there have been questions about alternative meal options after Attorney General Keith Ellison announced that schools across the state were no longer allowed to give alternative meals.

“Owatonna has never given out alternative meals,” Brooks said. “All of our students, regardless of where they are for meal balances, are getting the meals we make. We believe students are at school to learn and not here to have us talk about money with them. We don’t alert them of a negative lunch balance and we do everything we can to avoid lunch shaming.”

Brooks said she, along with her team and many other nutritional services programs across other schools, will continue to advocate for a universal free meal program. But on the state level, nothing is currently going through local legislature.

“Anyone with a passion for kids can talk about this and advocate for it,” Brooks said. “We hope to see it talked about more so we may continue to provide high quality education and the food to make it through.”

Parents and guardians can apply for benefits at any time by applying online on the school site by visiting the Nutritional Services page under the District Services tab.

Dan Gorman receives 2022 Book of Golden Deeds. (Submitted photo)

Dan Gorman receives 2022 Book of Golden Deeds

The Owatonna boys swim and dive team recorded top times in nearly all varsity and junior varsity events during the Huskies’ meet against Rochester John Marshall. (File photo/

'Kindness Crew' strikes again with community donations

They may be small, but they tend to give in mighty big ways.

After raising a record-breaking $2,100 — blowing their initial goal of $500 out of the water — Lisa Korbel and the Kindness Crew shop for games, mittens and more to gift to local nonprofits for the holidays. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Korbel)

For the seventh year in a row, the kids attending Lisa Korbel’s at-home daycare in Owatonna have spent the last month raising money to give back to community groups. Typically targeting groups that also touch the lives of local children, Korbel said this year she decided to select Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota and Community Pathways of Steele County as the organizations to be blessed by the self-named “Kindness Crew.”

“We always try to keep it local so that we can keep it in the community,” Korbel said, adding she made the announcement to her little friends which groups they would be giving to during their “Friendsgiving” celebration last month. “Once the announcement was made, we all got really creative.”

Korbel said her families that use her daycare services did a variety of things to raise funds for their gift giving session this year. One little girl created roughly 40 watercolor paintings of simple things such as stars, had her mother add Christmas-type phrases, framed them and put them up for sale. A boy in her group made on-the-stove Christmas potpourri with his mom, cooking up oranges, cinnamon sticks and cranberries, eventually selling up to 50 bundles. Other families continually brought in cash donations.

The initial goal set by the crew was to raise $500. Throughout the fundraising process, however, Korbel said she had to continually clear their “giant thermometer” and set new goals.

When it was all said and done, Korbel and the Kindness Crew had raised a record $2,100.

“Every year, we have done this it has continuously grown, but this is incredible,” Korbel said. “It is an incredible thing to watch these little, tiny kids — ages 2 to 5 — making a difference in the lives of people in our community. It is fun to witness that.”

Lisa Korbel and her Kindness Crew — the kids that comprise her at-home daycare in Owatonna — present games and a $800 donation to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Minnesota. Each year, the Kindness Crew picks one or two local organizations to gift something special to. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Korbel)

Prior to the fundraising efforts winding down, Korbel reaches out to the organizations to see what their immediate needs are. With BBBS, Korbel knew there were many ways the organization touches the lives of children, but she wanted her group to do something beyond their typical donations of clothes and toiletries.

“They really wanted lots of things Bigs and Littles could just do together,” Korbel said. After the crew had all their money collected, Korbel took the kids and whoever in the families wanted to join for a shopping trip to pick up games to be shared with the matches.

With Community Pathways, Korbel has a unique insight on what is going on inside what she calls a “hub” for the community — her brother-in-law is Executive Director Dom Korbel.

“I do have a little knowledge of what all is needed at Community Pathways because of Dom, but with their expansion happening and them now including other nonprofits like Transitional Housing, it’s just clear that the new Community Pathways is serving as a hub for so many different entities and things,” Lisa Korbel said. “I wanted a way for us to give with an impact on many different things, too.”

To help what Lisa Korbel calls the “hub” for the community, the Kindness Crew purchased laundry detergent and kids-sized mittens to benefit Community Pathways of Steele County. Executive Director Dom Korbel will visit the Kindness Crew next week to accept their gifts. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Korbel)

Listening to the needs of Community Pathways, Korbel and her daycare kids purchased laundry soap and more than 20 pairs of kids-sized mittens for the organization.

Because of their extraordinary fundraising efforts, though, the Kindness Crew was also able to gift the organizations with $800 each.

“There is something extra special about receiving donations from our youngest citizens. The smiles that comes with those gifts always melt my heart,” Dom Korbel said. “Those kids are our future supporters that will make the work we do possible for the next generation.”

Lisa Korbel echoed her brother-in-law, stating she hopes these moments the Kindness Crew has together will cause a ripple effect through the rest of each crew member’s lives.

“I hope they want to keep doing this, even when they leave here. I hope they see that impact they’re having on others and feel that feeling of helping someone,” Korbel said. “It is inspiring for little kids to do this, and to think if little kids can do it, adults sure can, too.”