The Derry Cooperative School District is crafting a policy to deal with unpaid-for school lunches, while trying to ensure that no child comes to school or leaves school hungry.
Superintendent Laura Nelson presented a draft policy, KCM, on food service at the Feb. 11 School Board meeting.
School District Business Administrator Jane Simard, who oversees the food service program directed by Susan Baroskas, said the unpaid lunch balance for Derry’s schools is up to $11,000. Efforts by her office staff to collect the outstanding balances are not always successful, Simard said.
Simard blamed the high balances in part on new federal regulations that mandate that the cash register be positioned at the end of the lunch line. By the time a child gets to the register, he or she has a full plate, and “We don’t know until a child gets to the end of the line that they have no money in their account.” Her kindhearted staff will not make a child put the food back, she said.
The schools formerly had a $5 maximum a child could charge, and if they came to school without money, they were given a cheese sandwich, Simard said. When that was the practice, unpaid balances totaled $1,500. But the practice did not pass federal guidelines and was discontinued, she said.
Simard and the board’s Food Service Committee, Jeri Murphy and Jennifer Lague, researched what other districts were doing. “Every district we looked at has a maximum they are allowed to charge,” she said.
The proposed policy would allow children to reach a maximum in charged lunches before being prohibited from charging and given an “alternative meal” instead. The alternative meal is milk, fruit and a sandwich, she said. Parents will still have to pay, but it’s a cheaper alternative than a full cafeteria lunch.
The decision came hard, Simard said, because neither she nor the “lunch ladies” like to make a child put food back. “But if there’s food on the plate, someone has to pay for it,” she added.
Simard said the process would be easier if the lunch staff could communicate with a child earlier in the process, such at the head of the line. “But it puts our staff in a difficult position,” she said of the federal cash register rule.
Murphy suggested having cafeteria staff maintain a presence at the beginning of the line, so they can catch children who have outstanding balances and gently direct them toward the alternative meal. “We don’t want to embarrass them and have them throw their lunch away,” she said.
Simard agreed, saying that the Food Service employees know who’s already overcharged and who isn’t. “With the parents’ cooperation, this could work,” she said.
She has had invoices sent home with elementary students, she said. She doesn’t bother with middle school, because “the paperwork doesn’t make it home.”
Board member Neal Ochs said, “With everything you’ve attempted, it’s still obviously not working. I’d like to see something at the beginning of the line. We shouldn’t put the burden on children it’s the parents’ responsibility.”
Simard observed that some of the parents are surprised their children have charged so much. Others say there’s nothing they can do about it. While she and Baroskas actively seek families who qualify for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch program, there’s a whole group of families who are “living on the edge” and make just enough money not to qualify for those programs. But that doesn’t mean these people have the means to pay for lunches, she added.
“The application does not take into account your bills, just your income,” she said. Simard’s staff have been told by these parents, “My kid is going to continue to charge” because they have no money. She said social worker Mary Ann Taylor is working with these families to find alternatives.
The policy states that representatives of the district may contact a student’s home by phone or mail when the child’s account reaches a negative balance. After the predetermined negative balance (not available at press time) is determined, the student will not be allowed to charge and will need to bring a lunch from home until the balance is paid and there is money in the account. When that student does not bring a lunch, he or she will be served the “alternative lunch” or modified meal.
If money remains on a student’s account at the end of the school year, the funds will be kept on the student’s account in August, or may be transferred to a sibling’s account.
Simard said that Grinnell Elementary School has the highest percentage of students on Free and Reduced Lunch; it hit 50 percent in January. Derry Village Elementary School, East Derry Memorial Elementary School, South Range Elementary School and West Running Brook Middle School also saw an increase, she said. Next Charter School, Gilbert H. Hood Middle School and Ernest P. Barka Elementary School saw no increase in their percentages.
District-wide, the number of children who are direct-certified, having their eligibility for Free and Reduced determined directly by the state, is up, she said.
“We feel this is reasonable and necessary,” Simard said about the proposed policy. “We are taking the utmost care and consideration not to embarrass anyone.”
Parents who think they qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch should contact the district office at 432-1210.