During the last week, a lot of media sources have picked up stories about students who are denied meals at school or have meals taken away from them. Although the stories are dramatic in nature, there are also elements to the issues that have not been part of the media attention. I would like to look at the issue as it relates to the ROCORI School District.
Headlines across the state warned that many students who can’t afford regularly priced meals are subject to having lunch removed from them. The Star-Tribune on Monday, February 10, offered this summary:
“A majority of public school districts in this state deny hot lunch — or any lunch at all in some cases — to children who can’t pay for them. Some schools take the meals from students in the lunch line and dump them in the trash when the computer shows a deficit in their lunch accounts…
“About 62,000 low-income children and teens take part in Minnesota’s reduced-price lunch program. That should mean that for 40 cents, they get a hot, nutritious lunch, with the remainder of the cost covered by public funds. But if students fail to come up with even 40 cents, some schools respond by denying or downgrading students’ lunches, as Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid discovered when it surveyed 309 public school districts.”
Quite frankly, there is a great deal of information left out of the media reports. First, the media reports focus primarily on the students who receive lunch at the reduced rate. The issue does not address, obviously, the free meal students in a school district nor does it address students who are paying regular price for meals. The attention is quite narrowly focused.
The reports, especially those from Minnesota, do not provide any statistical basis demonstrating the number or frequency of students denied meals. The stories refer to the policies of school districts, and generalizations are made to suggest that students have meals taken, but there is no statistical information to report how often—or even if—the meal denial occurs.
Beyond that, most of the media reports would suggest that a denial of meals happens immediately. Most of the stories do not look at any of the notification processes involved and the notification efforts are an important element to consider.
REASON FOR POLICY
Most of the articles also do not take into account that a school district, in essence, has to have a formal policy in place to deal with those who are consistent abusers of the system. In the organized structure, there must be a point defined at which action to address delinquency or failure to pay is expected.
Most often, in my experience and understanding, the food service policies are applied to those who can afford to pay for school breakfast and lunch but do not. The policy has to be written in the broadest sense; its application, however, can become more individualized.
APPLICATION OF POLICY
The Star-Tribune article described the situation like this:
“In a survey released Monday, 46 Minnesota school districts told Legal Aid that they immediately or eventually refuse to feed students who have insufficient funds in their lunch accounts. More than half the districts in the state — 166 of them — provide an alternative meal, typically a cold cheese sandwich, once the money runs out. Another 96 school districts, including the Minneapolis public schools, provide a hot lunch regardless of a child’s ability to pay…
“Some school districts send students home with a verbal warning for their parents or a hand stamp visible to all that says “LUNCH” or “MONEY.” Others hand children a bread-and-butter sandwich and carton of milk in lieu of a hot lunch.”
While these descriptions may be true in some districts, I believe they are extreme examples. When we consider what happens in the ROCORI system, I think we can be proud of the way our food service system operates.
To provide an accurate illustration of the situation, it is important to examine the issue of notification. We, as a district, begin to notify parents when the food service account falls below $10.00. We don’t even begin to discuss an alternate meal until the balance goes to more than $10 in arrears.
Our notifications to families come in many forms. We have an automatic notification process through our school message system. Students are typically given a note that their balance is low. Parents, at any time, are able to check their food service balances through our parent/family access system. If balances get too low, a personal call is often made to the family to try to discuss the situation to determine if other actions are needed.
When we get to the negative balance of $10, it does not “automatically” trigger a loss of the regular lunch. Our head cooks are encouraged to work with the families to see if some kind of plan or arrangements can be made. We, as a district, are more than willing to work with a family—especially one that is in the reduced price range—to ensure that students receive meals.
Even at the negative balance, we will always provide a meal to the student, although it may be the alternate meal. According to the information in the Star-Tribune, we are one of the 166 school districts in this category. Although that is what our policy explains, please consider how the situations typically play out.
If the information I heard from our food service staff is correct, we are rarely in a situation where the alternate meal is applied—and it is only after working with the family and getting no response. I have to base the information on what is provided, but it is my understanding that in the last five years, we have used an alternate meal only a handful of times.
When you consider we have 2000 students every day for 173 days a year, and serve more than a quarter million meals through a school year, to have only had a handful of situations reach the point of an alternate meal, things are going quite well!
THOUGHTS THIS WEEK
Certainly there has been a lot of attention given to this issue in media throughout the state. There are a number of elements to consider in the process and it is important to us, as a district, to help students have proper nutrition.
As we continue this theme next week, I would like to look at more specific examples of how the ROCORI policy is applied and the effects of the notification processes. We’ll also take a look at some of the prospects for food service in the future!