Weld County schools respond to national lunch shaming controversy | MyWindsorNow.com

Weld County schools respond to national lunch shaming controversy

James Redmond jredmond@greeleytribune.com

When Greeley-Evans District 6 elementary students run out of money in their school lunch accounts, they might get a little smiley face stamped on their hand.

It's designed to catch a parent's attention in a friendly way and help the district solve an ongoing problem, said Danielle Bock, District 6's director of nutrition services.

Most students pay for school meals out of a lunch account. Usually parents will replenish it when the account runs low or into debt. But sometimes it strays into debt, and the district has to work to avoid eating that negative balance.

That's not easy, and other districts across the country have resorted to measures other than friendly smiley faces to get students to pay off their lunch balances.

News reports detailed students at a Utah elementary school who had their food tossed in front of them and their friends when they had no means to pay for it. In Alabama, school workers stamped a student's arm with the words "I need lunch money." Another student remembered how her Albuquerque elementary school replaced her hot meals with white bread and a cold slice of cheese when she couldn't pay.

Last year a U.S. Department of Agriculture memo required all school districts to create a policy regarding negative lunch balances by this summer. Those balances are a problem for District 6 and for most schools districts in Weld County, said Bonnie Burcham, spokeswoman for Centennial BOCES — an educational cooperative serving 14 school districts across northern Colorado.

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Those balances cost most districts thousands of dollars per year and some angst over how to remind parents without being draconian.

Several states have approved laws essentially prohibiting lunch shaming. Colorado doesn't have any anti-lunch shaming laws on the books. For now, Weld districts are on their own. And sometimes the gentle reminders, the ones that come with a smile, don't work.

A fact of life and lunch

Negative lunch balances are a problem. They're also a reality of the school lunch system for most districts.

"When a child comes to school, one of the basic tenets of being successful in school is feeling safe and having some of your basic needs met, like not being hungry," said Don Rangel, superintendent of the Valley Re-1 School District that serves the towns of LaSalle, Gilcrest and Platteville. "In some ways, as long as we keep our focus on feeding our kids, I think we're in a good position. The great balance is: How do we bring negative balances up to being square without ruining the relationship with (parents)?"

A big part of the challenge lies in that double role. There's a fiscal responsibility to maintain a balanced budget for the program, but school officials need to build and maintain good relationships with students' families.

"That relationship is critical, and what I don't want is to have that soured by having all the communication at home be about an unpaid lunch balance," he said. "I'd have rather have us call to tell them about how their kid is doing, to answer a question or invite them to a parent-teacher conference."

A few dollars can build a lot of debt

Most District 6 students don't rack up more than $15 in lunch debt per year. But that debt gets multiplied by the number of students from financially challenged families and builds up over time.

In District 6, about 65 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch — a key indicator of poverty. And most of the students with outstanding negative lunch balances qualify for that assistance. Most even sign up for the benefit.

However, families have to reapply for free or reduced prices each year, and sometimes it takes a week or two for a family to get around to doing the paperwork. A week or two, at $3 a meal, is enough time to build up about $15 in debt.

It all adds up: At the end of this past school year, 2,674 Greeley-Evans School District 6 students had a combined debt of negative $15,561.

Poverty makes a difference. In the more affluent Windsor-Severance School District, where only 16 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunches, 125 students had a combined $504 negative lunch balance, said Stephanie Watson, Windsor-Severance Re-4 School District's assistant superintendent of business services.

In Valley Re-1 — with 54 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches — 530 of the district's 1,950 students have unpaid lunch balances, Rangel said, for a total of negative $12,694. But $3,473 of that comes from inactive students who graduated or moved away.

So these negative lunch balances are a problem, but just for perspective, District 6's Nutrition Services Department operates under a $10 million annual budget.

"That (amount) doesn't keep me up at night," Bock said.

However, it needs to be dealt with because they're a government entity, and that requires the district to balance its budget — which means dealing with that debt.

Unfortunately the straightforward solution — using nutrition services funds to pay down lunch balances — isn't allowed by federal regulations.

It's not necessarily an option Bock would choose to pursue. She's got a department to run, and she can't easily keep a balanced budget if she chooses to pay off people's debts. But still, regulations like that one limit her options.

A donation for the debt

People outside school districts recognize the problem and want to help; some even make donations specifically to pay off negative lunch balances.

Bock hopes to work with the District 6 Success Foundation to establish a fund that can accept donations to help pay off negative school meal balances for students.

The partnership with the foundation could even help donors claim it as a charitable donation.

However, most schools have practices that try to prevent the negative balances in the first place.

Valley Re-1 lets students charge lunches. Before accounts go negative, when it gets low, the district starts notifying parents. When the account goes negative, school officials start calling parents, trying to figure out the best way to solve the problem. Usually the best solution is making sure the families apply for free or reduced lunches, Rangel said.

Most families will apply for the assistance, but a few won't because they don't believe in asking for assistance or don't want their names on a government document.

Watson and Bock both touted the importance of district staff reaching out to families to see if they can help them apply for free or reduced lunches or find another way to help the family get the student's lunch account back to a positive place.

In District 6, students can't walk at graduation with any outstanding fee — even though they are allowed to graduate — and that includes a negative lunch balance. They also cap negative lunch balances at $15 before nutrition services staff start serving an alternative meal, which usually is the same meal the other District 6 students get.

In short, District 6 children do not go without food. The Nutrition Services Department ensures every child receives a meal every day, Bock said, regardless of whether they have a positive or negative meal account balance.

In fact, it's become a common practice for most of the lunchroom workers to keep a couple dollars in their pocket to pay for students' lunches if they can't afford their own, Bock said.

"We're all lunch ladies with big hearts for students eating," she said.

How to help

Sometimes charitable people make donations to settle negative school lunch account balances, according to Danielle Bock, District 6’s director of nutrition services.

That’s why she started working with the District 6 Success Foundation to establish a fund that can accept donations to help pay off negative school meal balances for students.

To find out more about the foundation’s work to establish that fund, contact the foundation at (970) 348-6361, info@d6successfoundation.org or http://www.d6successfoundation.org.