Schools look for ways to manage in-the-red meal accounts

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cassville eliminates alternative lunches in grades K-8

The Cassville school district food service staff recently participated in a webinar to review procedures and options on how to deal with unpaid student meal accounts.

"Schools handle this issue in a variety of ways, and even from state-to-state, the regulations are different," said Richard Asbill, Cassville superintendent. "The information was pretty standard to the policies already in place by the USDA and the school lunch program both at the federal or state level."

According to Asbill, students qualify for the school lunch program as full, reduced, or free price, based on income guidelines and an application process. If a family already qualifies through direct certification, no forms need to be completed.

From time to time however, student accounts for full or reduced lunches can run in the negative, and money is owed on the student's account. From that point, parents are contacted and asked to bring the account up-to-date.

"This allows parents the option to send in money based on need or when they normally pay bills and apply payment to the child or children's accounts," Asbill said. "We allow a $10 deficit or ability to charge $10 in the red. We do our best to notify and let parents know that the child owes or needs money put on the lunch account. Parents can also access that information through the Lumen student information portal on-line too."

What can cause confusion for parents is that grades six through 12 students are able to purchase a la carte items, which are extra food items such as snacks, desserts and fruit options, in addition to meals. When a student has a negative account balance, however, they are not permitted to buy a la carte items.

For example, Asbill said, a parent puts $10 in a high school student account for meals, but may not know the student also purchased two or three additional food items. So it comes as a surprise when the office calls and lets the parent know their child needs additional funds added to their account.

"We are evaluating options at the 7-12 grade levels as the age of these students and access to the extra food items makes it challenging for parents to plan," Asbill said.

When a meal account falls below $10, a student may be served what is called an alternative lunch, a less-nutritious and somewhat less-desirable meal option.

"We do and have offered alternative meal options to students whose accounts have been in the negative," Asbill said. "This rarely occurs at the elementary grades and primarily happens at the high school grade levels. An alternative meal is basically a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk option. We have not been serving alternative meals at the lower grades, but we have taken a more official position that no alternative meals will be served in grades K-6."

Moving forward, the district's plan is to continue restrictions on a la carte items if a balance of $10 is owed, to continue working on a plan to phase out alternative meals for grades seven through 12, as they have for lower grades, and begin implementing new communication methods with parents.

In the case of each student's best interest and need for a healthy, nutritious meal during the school day, the district will always attempt to work with parents on the issue, Asbill said.

"We do intend to do some different reminders and letters about account balances, and hopefully work with the parents to accommodate food needs," Asbill said.

In the past, the Exeter school district has also served an alternative lunch to students whose accounts have fallen into a negative balance. Exeter's current practice is that if a student meal account balance falls below $10, a meeting is requested with parents to determine a plan of action. They also maintain a position to work with parents in any way they can to meet a student's needs.

"It is our goal for all students to receive a healthy meal," said Tim Jordan, Exeter Elementary principal. "We do not currently serve alternative lunches to students unless it is for dietary restrictions."

The Southwest school district handles negative meal accounts in a similar manner.

"At a $10 [negative balance], students or parents are reminded," said Bob Walker, superintendent for Southwest schools. "If things are not taken care of in a reasonable amount of time, students may be served an alternative lunch. These lunches can vary, but will meet the required nutritional guidelines, usually some type of sandwich, fruit, and milk."

The Purdy school district adjusts the charge limit throughout the year, and also works with families who have a meal account in arrearage, but only serves an alternative lunch as a last resort.

"Our board has taken a very strong stance in the past," said Steven Chancellor, superintendent for the district. "We will not let kids be hungry, and they should not receive a consequence that 99 percent of the time is out of their control.

"We expect every family to meet their financial obligations, no question about that, but our enrollment size allows us to be flexible enough to work one-on-one with families to meet their needs. In the rarest of rare occasions a student will receive an alternative meal -- usually a sandwich. For that to have happened means literally all other options have been exhausted."

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