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District Gets Helping Hand With Delinquent Lunch Accounts

Anonymous donors pick up the slack for kids who would otherwise have to get alternative meals due to unpaid meal bills.

Like many school districts in the country, Rapid City (S.D.) Area Schools has a problem with cash students whose meal accounts fall behind. Do you cut them off and see a child go hungry, or keep serving them and take a financial hit?

Up to this year, like many districts, Rapid City compromised by serving such students an alternative lunch of low-cost items like cold cereal and milk or a cheese sandwich.

Now, however, they get a full meal thanks to some anonymous donors who have contributed more than $5,000 to a fund dedicated specifically to take care of.such cases. That came about after some local media had reported on how some students were receiving alternative meals because of their overdrawn accounts, says Janelle Peterson, M.Ed, SNS, food service supervisor for the district.

“As a result of those reports, we had some folks come forward who didn’t want to see kids singled out. They contacted the school and offered to help.” The donors prefer to remain anonymous but have provided enough funds to keep the program running for a while, with promises to provide more when needed.

Peterson says she is gratified and thankful that members of the community have stepped up in this way as she didn’t like to see her department presented as the villain in the press when she was only trying to maintain fiscal responsibility with public funds.

“We now have people committed to seeing this continue,” she says. “We feel it will serve us well for at least the next few years.”

Also, instead of spending time on alternative meals, she and her staff can concentrate on getting the accounts squared while the kids get nutritious full meals.

“Having that safety net gives us the opportunity to work with parents and identify students in need,” Peterson explains. She acknowledges that there is a danger that some parents may try to take advantage but is confident she and her staff can work around that.

Peterson says the basic problem is that a number of students fall just above the cutoff for subsidized meal qualification, where even the fairly minimal cash price of a full school lunch (ranging from $2.35 in elementaries to $2.90 in the high schools) is a hardship for their families. As a result, they fall behind of providing adequate funds in the child’s meal account.

Rapid City Area Schools operates 23 sites: 15 elementaries, five middle schools and three high schools. The foodservice department has a budget of around $6 million with just under half of the enrollment qualifying for free or reduced-price school meals. Several pockets of poverty have allowed the district to qualify six school sites—five elementaries and a middle school—for universal free breakfast and lunch under the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision.

Meanwhile, although Rapid City has struggled with implementing the new federal school meal standards required by the 2010 Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, it has escaped the participation decline seen by many districts thanks to aggressive menu development policies that give students increased choices of preferred foods such as pizza, chicken nuggets and strips and burgers while adhering to federal mandates. A la carte has been eliminated but design-your-own sub and salad line concept has proved very popular and continue to draw students to the cafeterias. Overall district lunch participation is at 69% despite the high schools having open campuses.

Breakfast has also been aggressively promoted with breakfast-in-the-classroom and hallway service modules implemented to encourage participation. One big win has been breakfast in the middle school site that qualified for CEP, where participation shot up from 19% to 50%.

Challenges remain, says Peterson, who is president-elect for the state SNA in South Dakota. Most prominent are costs, especially of whole grain products and produce. She notes that the fruit cups served with breakfasts have come in at twice the cost estimated by Congress when it established the mandate: 34 cents rather than 17 cents.

It is cost pressures like that that make carrying students who are behind on meal accounts a fiscal hardship, she says, and that’s why the Good Samaritans from the community who have stepped up to help are such a godsend.

TAGS: K-12 Schools
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