FOOD SERVICE POLICY
Over the last few weeks, there has been quite a bit of state media coverage on the issue of meal charge policies in schools across the state. The district adopted a policy this summer related to this issue based, in part, on our practices and, in part, expectations established by federal food program guidelines. I would like to take some time, this week, to review the manner in which the policy is carried out in the ROCORI School District.
The Meal Charge Policy adopted this summer was a requirement of food service programs receiving federal support. The idea was to have schools clarify how issues of “charging meals” would be treated. Essentially, the question was whether or not students would be allowed to have meal accounts that ran into a deficit and, if so, how much of a deficit would be allowed before students would have “consequences”.
Much of our policy was determined by the past practices and procedures of the district. We have been working, over the last several years, to encourage families to keep accounts current—and most of our families do so! We have very few situations in which the family food service account reaches a significant deficit.
Our policy related to negative meal accounts is not entirely a “new” policy. Much of what we have outlined in the policy has been the practice of the district for a considerable time!
We begin notifying families of a low balance in their food service account when the account reaches a balance of $10.00. Our meal charge policy allows a student to continue to eat the regular meals until the account falls to a negative balance of $10.00.
When an account goes below a negative $10.00 balance, the student can still eat—but the student is provided an alternate meal. As a district, we have been giving the alternative meal for the past two years when a balance falls to a negative $10.00. Prior to that, when there would be many negative balances, we would offer an alternative meal until the balance was paid.
What this means is there is a $20 “window” of opportunity for the family to put additional funds into the account before the policy of the alternative meal goes into effect. For a single student family, there is considerable time within the $20 “window.” It is accurate, that families with more students would have a shorter window of time to replenish the account.
Because we were required to place the information into policy, we did so, but the practice of having an alternate meal when a balance falls to a negative $10.00 balance or lower has been practice for the district for a while.
WHAT IS AN ALTERNATIVE MEAL?
In the ROCORI School District, an alternative meal really means that the entrée is changed to a sandwich—likely peanut butter or cheese. Even if the student accounts are over the limit, the core item that changes is the entrée. Instead of the main entrée, the sandwich is substituted.
Everything else in the alternate meal—fruits, vegetables, and milk—remain the same. Fruits and vegetables can also be taken in almost any quantity the student desires. The fruits, vegetables and milk are not denied.
Many people seem to expect that an alternate meal is some kind of lesser food or leftovers that don’t go to other students. The only thing that changes, in ROCORI, is the entrée. The entrée becomes a peanut butter or cheese (if there are allergy issues) sandwich.
The Minnesota Commissioner of Education, Brenda Cassellius, has shared her opinion about the meal charge policy. The Commissioner has been very clear that schools should serve students full lunch meals regardless of the status of their lunch accounts.
Although I understand the Commissioner’s passion about making sure that all students have a good meal each day as well as her position that a negative food service balance is more a parent issue that it is a student issue, I do struggle with the position that students should be served the regular meal no matter what their status.
In Minnesota, there are avenues for parents and students to address the issue. In the past (although we still use the phrase), Minnesota had eligibility guidelines for free meals and for students to qualify for reduced price meals. A few years ago, Minnesota changed the guidelines and made all of the meals free—there is no longer a reduced price category.
Because of the change, all students whose families meet the eligibility guidelines are able to have free meals. Overall, for the ROCORI District, this is about a third of our students. Unless the students choose things from the ala carte menu, free/reduced students should never be in position to accumulate a negative balance.
ADDITIONAL STEPS TAKEN
When a family gets to the -$10.00 amount, the student still eats that day’s meal. The family is personally called at that point to be sure they are notified of the potential shift to the alternative meal. The family is informed the student would need to choose the alternative meal the next day unless a payment is made to the account.
Our food service staff is more than willing to work with a family experiencing a difficulty. Chris Barker, Director of Food Services, will work directly with the family to encourage application for free meals, to work out a reasonable payment plan or process, to help the family understand the situation, and to ensure that some arrangement is put in place.
On any given day, there may be one or two students who have reached the -$10 account balance. Phone calls are made to those households to explain the situation and invite conversation about the condition of the account. If a family responds, in any favorable way, the food service staff will work with the family.
By our policy and food service guidelines, a student eligible for a free meal cannot be denied a meal regardless of the balance. The only time we deny anything to a student on free or reduced is if the account reaches a negative balance and they want to purchase an ala cart item. But, we never deny the student a regular lunch.
Chris Barker has been working with her staff and the secondary office staff on alternative “notification” processes, as well. The idea is that, even though a call had gone to the family the day before, the student would be given a notice early in the school day (prior to lunch) as one last attempt to be certain the account has not been overlooked and to provide one more opportunity to allow funds to be placed in the account.
Chris Barker and I have had some good discussions about our Food Service Program. The whole desire of the food service program is to provide students with meals. Our food service staff wants all students to have a good, healthy lunch and the food service staff works hard to ensure all students get a good meal! It is as difficult and challenging to the food service staff to have to offer the alternative as it is to the student; they would rather provide the full meal.
Overall, we do not have large numbers of people affected by the policy. Chris has reported to me that the number of calls (for negative lunch balance) is generally less than five and many days is only one or two. Most often, those accounts are resolved and the process works well.
We are continuing to work on ways to get to students prior to the point where the alternative meal is required; we are open to ideas and thoughts to explore.