As I shared in the last column, during the last few weeks a lot of media sources have picked up stories about students who are denied meals at school or have meals taken away from them. I would like to continue to look at the issue as it relates to the ROCORI School District.
Last week, we looked at some of the headlines across the state. The headlines warned that many students who can’t afford regularly priced meals are subject to having lunch removed from them. An important statistic was that about 62,000 low-income children and teens take part in Minnesota’s reduced-price lunch program.
Reduced price meals mean that for 40 cents, the students are able to get a hot, nutritious lunch, with the remainder of the cost covered by public funds. The point of the media focus, it appears, is to be sure that schools and public resources make sure students are provided a healthy meal.
At the start of the article last week, I shared that there is a great deal of information left out of the media reports. Most of the stories do not look at any of the notification processes involved and the notification efforts are an important element to consider.
We also reviewed some of the background reasons for food service policies regarding provision of meals as well as our notification process in the ROCORI School District. We begin notification of families at $10 and continue at least until an account goes $10 in the deficit.
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.
EXAMPLE FOR AN INDIVIDUAL STUDENT
To help illustrate the notification process, I would like to look at how it plays out for an individual, reduced price student. As a general response, it would take a very long period of time for a student in the ROCORI District to even get into the position where a decision has to be made.
In the case of reduced price lunches, it is important to note that the cost is 40 cents per meal. At 40 cents per meal, a student would have to use up the entire $10.00 (25 meals or more than one month) to even be at a zero balance.
Again, we don’t even begin to discuss an alternate meal until the balance goes to more than $10 in arrears. That is another 25 meals. In total, there is a period of at least 50 school days of notification before any kind of action would be taken for a single student on reduced price lunches.
FAMILIES WITH MULTIPLE STUDENTS
Although it would appear to be a long time for any individual student, questions have been raised about families with multiple students. In the example earlier, it would be more than 50 days of notification for a single student. It can certainly be argued that if there are two students, the time frame drops to 25 days and that if it is a family of four students, the notification would be about 12 days. That is certainly true, but in this case 12 days is still more than two weeks of notice about the status of the account.
Other questions have been raised about a family not qualifying for reduced price meals. An account balance, in this case, can also move more quickly. A single student, from the $10 standard, would have about four days of notice before the account was “empty.” The family would have another four days before the account hit a balance of -$10.
It would also be true that a family of four students, paying regular price for meals, could move very quickly from a $10 positive balance to a negative $10 balance. This could happen in just a couple days.
I, and our food service staff, do understand the issue of a family of four being able to move from $10 to -$10 more quickly. In my conversations with our food service staff, however, there is still a desire to work with the family.
Those responsible for our food service program explained to me that their first priority is to work with the family. They would take the time to connect, understand the situation and try to resolve it without moving immediately to the alternate meal.
As I shared last week, even at a negative balance, we will always provide a meal to the student! It may be the alternate meal—but still one that is approved by federal standards.
As I noted last week, we are rarely in a situation where the alternate meal is applied. Typically, 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!
PROSPECTS FOR FUTURE
In our conversations about this issue as a school district, I do not see or sense a desire to move this to a strict interpretation or application of the procedure.
Our high school kitchen has talked about an “Angel Fund” in which anonymous donations have been made to food service to cover students who are not able to secure meals, appropriate alternative meals that can still meet nutritional requirements, ensuring the dignity of the student and treating situations respectfully, and understanding individual situations.
The bottom line to this is that we are not, as a district, anywhere near the point of pulling trays or being in the situation described by the media. We have no intentions to change our policy or our process. The only change, if there is any, is to provide a little more grace for students and to support the legislation that would adjust compensation to cover reduced meal students!
The Star-Tribune article included this projection for the future. “The state could expand the free lunch program to all students who now receive reduced-price lunch for an estimated $3.35 million. The Legislature debated such an expansion last session, but the proposal failed to make its way into the education budget bill. Rep. Yvonne Selcer, DFL-Minnetonka, is preparing to push the bill again this year.”