Alternative lunch options go by wayside

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

6 of 8 local districts no longer use ‘PB&J’ substitute for students with debt

Local school districts’ food service policies change over the years, and one of the biggest changes in recent years has been the use or elimination of alternative lunch programs for students who have incurred food service debts.

Of the eight local school districts, Cassville, Exeter, Southwest, Wheaton, Purdy, Monett, Pierce City and Verona, six have eliminated the program, and two still have one in effect.

Most school districts use a $10 threshold before contacting parents, as outlined in PR 5550 of the Missouri Consultants for Education. Students with any food service debt also are typically not allowed to order a la carte items, such as cookies, pies or cakes, among other pre-wrapped items.

In Cassville, Superintendent Richard Asbill said the alternative lunch program was eliminated about four or five years ago at the elementary level and three or four years ago at the upper levels.

“Students go through the lunch line and scan their cards, which goes to a debit account, and we ensure every student gets the same tray meal regardless of being full pay or in the free or reduced lunch program, and the system is set up to where no one knows a student’s qualification,” he said. “The system also notifies each school office when an account goes into the negative, and after $10 in the negative, we send a notice or reminder to the parents.

“Sometimes, we have parents that put $25 a month into the account, and depending on the number of school days in each month, a student may be $3 in the negative, but we know the parents will put $25 in the next day or so.”

Asbill said from time to time, a student may incur more than $10 in debt, and it is the responsibility of the building principals to work with parents to resolve outstanding accounts.

“Sometimes a parent may forget or not see a notice, and other times a family’s situation may change, such as a move or a lost job, so we send out the free or reduced meal applications every quarter,” Asbill said. “All students get the same meal, and once they are over $10 or $15, they may not get any a la carte items.”

Asbill said the district also utilizes the Bright Futures program on occasion to settle outstanding accounts. Bright Futures is a collaboration between the district, local faith-based organizations and individuals to provide funds mainly for personal needs, such as clothing or shoes.

“We have a store that once we recognize a need, they can go there and get shirts, shoes, socks and even sometimes, underwear,” Asbill said. “Bright Futures can also use extra funds to help with food service debts temporarily.”

Cassville had an alternative lunch program in the past, where a student would be served a peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese sandwich with milk.

“It seemed like more work to have an alternative lunch program, so we eliminated it fully about three or four years ago.”

Exeter Superintendent Ernest Raney said his district’s pre-kindergarten through sixth grade students may incur no more than $10 of debt at a time before a statement is sent home to parents.

“We try not to let a balance exceed $10, and we’ve had to contact families to pay bills, and we try to help find ways to make it easier, like a payment system so it’s not so overwhelming,” he said. “If they are unable, we help pay as much as we can. We do the best we can do and they do the best they can do.”

Raney said no matter the amount of debt, all students eat the same basic hot lunch tray, and there are no alternative meals.

“We don’t want any kid to feel bad, basic needs have to be met and we have to take care of our kids,” he said. “We utilize the free or reduced lunch program, and if [students] are ineligible, they still get a good meal just like anyone else. We don’t want to treat anyone differently because of a family situation.”

At Southwest, Superintendent Tosha Watson said every child, regardless of food service debt, receives a hot meal.

“There was a time students [with large debt] got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit and milk at the same cost of a hot meal,” she said. “To me, that did not make sense. Therefore, we feed every student a tray and not have kids isolated or pointed out. Most kids do a great job of keeping paid up, and a few are slower to pay, but not very many.”

Watson said when a bill gets high, the district sends a letter to work with the child’s parents and pay the debt.

“We also have a giving community and staff,” she said. “Many times, someone will hear about a big lunch debt via word of mouth, and the will pay it for the student. We still do all we can to get ahold of the parents.”

Wheaton Superintendent Lance Massey said his district stopped its alternative lunch program about five years ago, and his reason is uncommon compared to other schools.

“Back then, we had too many issues with kids choosing the alternative lunch,” he said. “They would say, ‘I’d rather not have X today. I’d rather have a cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.’ We do out food service through Opaa!, and I looked at the prices, and the cost of the alternative lunch was too close to the cost of the regular tray.”

Massey said Wheaton sends weekly letter to parents and uses an automated phone system to notify them if a food service account gets to $10 in debt, but no matter the debt, all students receive the same hot lunch tray.

“We work with parents to figure out solutions and get things solved,” he said.

Steven Chancellor, Purdy superintendent, said four years ago, the Purdy School Board took a hard stance against the alternative meal program.

“[There was an alternative meal program, and that was] a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk,” he said. “We had a hard time with that, and the board took a stance that kids eat, period. In most cases, it’s not the child’s fault or it’s out of their control, so we try to not penalize kids for adult actions. And, with our increased expectations in the classroom, we know a hungry kid will not learn as well.”

Chancellor said Purdy has run a debt-free food service program for several years, and the district is preparing to roll out an online meal pay program for parents to more easily keep track of their children’s meal costs.

Like most other districts, Purdy begins to contact parents once a student has $10 in debt.

“There’s a series of things that happen,” he said. “First, we send a letter to the parents. Then, we make phone calls from a kitchen standpoint. Form there, principals become engaged with phone calls or catching parents in the hallway while they are picking up their kids.

“We apply a steady pressure, and there’s only been one or two times a parent has not cooperated or we have done a collection or certified letter. [Even with any amount of debt], students continue to get a standard lunch.”

Brad Hanson, Monett superintendent, said his district eliminated the alternative lunch program last year, and every student, even those with food service debt, receives the basic hot lunch tray.

“We have had an alternative lunch program in the past, and that went into place when the debt reached a $6 threshold,” Hanson said. “It was a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich with a milk and fruit. We did away with alternative meals last year, and now, every child get the basic tray.”

Monett’s $6 threshold has also changed, as now, a student’s parents are not contacted until 10 in-debt meals have been ordered, which is about $20 worth of food.

“Every kid will eat, [and if it reaches the threshold], we work with the parents to get the debt paid off,” Hanson said.

In Pierce City, Superintendent Russ Moreland said the alternative meal program is utilized once a student reaches $10 in food service debt.

“We reach out to parents, making phone calls, sending letters home, sending invoices or by email or mail, and we encourage all our parents to make sure they fill out a free or reduced lunch application,” Moreland said. “The alternative meal program starts at $10 of debt. It’s a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich with a milk and fruit option. The number of kids that have alternative meals varies, so it’s hard to say how common it is. It ebbs and flows. Our goal is always to work with families so kids don’t have alternative meals.”

Verona Superintendent Tony Simmons said his district also utilizes an alternative meal program, per the PR 5550 policy.

“We’re a little easier on our elementary school students than our high school students, and we have it on our agenda for the next school board meeting to change the policy a little because it states only allowing one meal in debt and we allow up to $10,” he said. “The alternative meal depends on the dietary requirements of the student, but it’s typically a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk.”

Simmons said once a student reaches $10, the district makes contact with parents via a phone call or note sent home with the child.

“Typically, being such a small school district, If a kid gets to the point of an alternative meal, I contact the parents and try to get it fixed so they don’t have to do that,” he said. “If they are on free or reduced lunch, they are taken care of. In most socio-economic districts, the majority of students are on free or reduced lunch. Kids on free are taken care of, and even the reduced lunch is 50 cents, so you’re talking 20 meals before they reach the $10.

“When we talk about alternative meals, we’re typically talking about only full pay students, and they are the minority here, so it doesn’t happen as often as you would think.”

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