Local news, local politics and community events for West St. Louis County Missouri.
42 I COVER STORY I March 7, 2018 WEST NEWSMAGAZINE @WESTNEWSMAG WESTNEWSMAGAZINE.COM No child left hungry School districts seek balance between well-fed kids, unpaid lunch debt By BONNIE KRUEGER Rumbling stomachs and arithmetic don’t jive. That’s a concept about which everyone can agree. But how to deal with hungry kids at school and how to deal with the debt that arises when families can’t pay school districts for the food their children consume does not receive the same consensus. Over the past several years, the term lunch shaming has entered the national conversation. But what does that mean, exactly? It could mean that students are denied a lunch purchase as they checkout due to a lack of funds in their school lunch account. At the checkout, those children are asked to throw away their schoolpurchased lunch and, instead, given an alternate, less expensive lunch, perhaps a cheese sandwich or cheese crackers. The act of having to throw away their lunch is embarrassing for those children and costly for the district. Locally, the response has been to be lenient with children who charge more than they can afford. As a result of this leniency, local school districts are accumulating lunch debt, often in the thousands of dollars. The rising cost of feeding kids Carmen Fischer, Rockwood’s director of child nutrition services, said the district currently has an unpaid food service balance of $8,000, the total of unpaid charges from its 29 schools, with over 21,000 students served. Fischer said the district always has carried an uncollected balance, but this year it is a bit higher. Beginning this school year, students without a positive account still are able to purchase the traditional meal offering, rather than being given an alternative lunch or, in some cases, breakfast. Alternate meals include a balanced variety of protein, grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy. The United States Department of Agriculture [USDA] reimburses for alternate meals provided that those meals consist of at least three of the five items offered, chosen by the student, with one selection being a fruit or vegetable. Marlene Pfeiffer, Parkway’s food service director, said the district’s uncollected food service balance is a tad higher this school year, coming in at $10,000, instead of the usual $7,000 to $8,000. Parkway consists of 28 traditional schools and two early childhood sites and serves meals to approximately 17,000 students. This infographic highlights healthy meal components as defined by the USDA. At this time, Parkway offers an alternate meal if an account has a negative balance of $9.30 or greater. Up to the negative balance, the child can charge meals without the alternate being offered. In Parkway, the alternate meal is a choice between a cheese sandwich or cheese sticks with crackers or a Sunbutter with jelly sandwich plus a choice of fruit or vegetable and milk or juice. Breakfast choices are a bit more structured with fewer components, so no alternative or reimbursable meal is available. Contributing to increased balances across districts is the fact that balances roll over from year to year so long as a family member is enrolled in the district. One line of defense in reducing school debt for both Parkway and Rockwood is the myschoolbucks.com account manager, which allows parents to deposit breakfast and lunch money, track purchases and check account balances at any time. Parents may request an alert via text, email or phone when their child’s balance falls below the chosen minimum threshold. The districts also employ what some may call “old school” – sending a letter home or making a phone call to alert the family of the negative balance. In neighboring St. Charles County, the Francis Howell and Fort Zumwalt school districts employ this more personal approach on a regular basis. In recent years, Fort Zumwalt, which covers 25 schools, has seen a substantial jump in unpaid lunch debt to approximately $22,000. Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Dr. Bernard DuBray explained that the district’s mission is to do what they’ve always done – make sure their students are properly nourished and figure out collections as they go. But doing what they always have done may no longer be enough. In response to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Congress required the USDA to report on the feasibility of establishing national standards for meal charges and alternate meals and, if applicable, to make recommendations for implementation. The result were regulations that went into affect in July 2017. As part of those regulations, the USDA stipulated that school districts must develop and communicate a clear meal charge policy to families, including guidelines for delinquent accounts and how that will impact the child’s lunch or breakfast options. Also stipulated by the USDA are guidelines across all states, regarding the free and reduced price breakfast and lunch program, as part of the federally funded National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. Schools must provide notification to all families that this program exists. Often, the application and accompanying paperwork is provided in a child’s back-toschool packet; however, implementing the remaining USDA regulations varies from district to district. Random acts of kindness Francis Howell has implemented Policy 5550, available on the district’s website, which details guidelines for delinquent accounts and what students will and will not be able to purchase without adequate funds. The district also created the online resource, Lunch Heroes, which allows community members and district staff to donate in support of students who no longer have funds in their lunch accounts. According to Francis Howell’s website, it costs an average of $50 per student to provide one month of lunches. Rockwood started a similar program at the end of 2017. That program includes reaching out to parents of students who have graduated. “Often times, when a student graduates, parents will forget about the money in their child’s lunch account,” explained Fischer. “We contact them about any money left behind in those lunch accounts.” Families can receive a refund from the district, transfer the money to a sibling’s account or, as of late last year, donate the money as a random act of kindness to help a student in need. Parkway recently followed suit and is in the process of creating the online ability to accept lunch account donations. If a senior has an unpaid lunch balance at the end of the year, all four districts interviewed said graduation ceremonies are not Lunch account keypad at a Rockwood School
FACEBOOK.COM/WESTNEWSMAGAZINE WESTNEWSMAGAZINE.COM March 7, 2018 WEST NEWSMAGAZINE I COVER STORY I 43 affected but prom is. In other words, students with outstanding debt can “walk” at graduation but cannot attend their senior prom. To help ease the burden of lunch debt, Rockwood has received financial donations from community members, churches and small businesses. The School Lunch Fairy nonprofit, based in Florida, recently donated $1,000 to Rockwood. Likewise, Fort Zumwalt and Francis Howell report receiving support for individual schools through staff collections and PTOs. In Parkway, employees of a local Starbucks collectively donated their holiday bonus checks to pay down the balance at specific schools. Approximately a year ago, Kevin Keating heard about lunch account deficits through local news media and decided to take action. Keating is the president of the Ballwin Masonic Lodge and, responding to the Mason’s strong belief of country, God and community, decided to help offset the local lunch debt. The Ballwin lodge raised $3,500 and pulled an additional $1,500 out of its charity fund; then, the Masonic Home matched that $5,000 for a total donation of $10,000. The money was divided between four districts: Rockwood, Parkway, Ladue and Windsor. Recently, Keating presented a $2,000 check to Parkway at Northeast Middle. The money will first pay off some debt for families with seniors, which would become uncollectible upon graduation, and then, pay down some balances from schools with the greatest percentage of uncollected debt. Rockwood also received a $2,000 check to help some of its struggling schools. Keating said this is just the beginning of bigger plans and continued efforts. This effort to pay down lunch debt also aligns with another program near and dear to the lodge’s mission, a backpack program that provides food for students in need outside of school. “The two things that nobody ever wants to be are cold and hungry,” Keating said. “Whatever the circumstance, it’s not the kid’s fault.” Of the donation effort, he said, “I thought it was the right thing to do. I think this is just shedding light on the problem and showing how much of an impact a little bit of effort can make.” He urges internal fundraising programs throughout the local schools, which he said Masonic Home will match. tive if it is utilized. Francis Howell Chief Operating Officer Kevin Supple said his district offers 2 million meals per year to its 17,000 students. The district encompasses 21 schools, including three early childhood centers. Inattention, on the family’s part, to free and reduced lunch program paperwork and meal account debt is another part of the problem. “They forget to make a payment, just falling off their radar for a time,” Supple said. “Other times, it might be an unexpected crises, job loss or medical emergency. That is when it’s important to step in to see what we can do as a district to support our families.” While the district carries an unpaid lunch debt of about $12,000, Supple said it is not a significant issue within the district’s $5 million operating budget. “It is just important that our kids are nourished,” he said. In fact, Francis Howell invites students to eat from its salad bar – whether they have purchased a lunch or brought one from home. In Parkway, to eliminate food waste and promote full bellies, students can place fruit, unwanted packaged food or milk and juice containers in a “share basket.” Students can select items from the basket to supplement their purchased or brought lunches. Additionally, since 2000, Parkway has offered free milk to students and provided food for its nurses’ offices. Rockwood also has a similar share program, but only will allow prepackaged items. “Parkway has been a district on the cutting edge, and our Parkway community expects the best,” Pfeiffer said. “We can only expect our kids to be at their best if we feed them and keep them healthy. You can’t learn if you’re hungry. They are our future. We need to take care of them.” Getting to the root of the problem The lunch balance deficit is not a new problem, nor is it necessarily because more families are unable to pay, but rather, it is the result of more attention highlighting the problem on a national level. In theory, the free and reduced lunch program should eliminate the financial stress of struggling families, but it only is effec-