Leader Blues

Monday, September 10, 2007

TOP STORY >>No child is left behind when it comes to food

Leader staff writer

No child will be left behind when it comes to eating at school, at least that’s what area school districts say.

Although every district faces the challenges of students not having their lunch money and the difficulty of collecting owed money, students in Pulaski County Special, Cabot, Lonoke and Beebe schools won’t be missing lunch anytime soon because of it.

“I don’t know of any time we have turned a student away from their meal because they couldn’t pay and I’ve been doing this for almost 29 years,” Michael Harvey, director of PCSSD’s student nutrition division, said. “We don’t deny students a meal. If they don’t qualify for free lunch and don’t have the money for a reduced or regular priced meal, it is recorded as a charge and we notify the parents to pay,” he said.

Students also do not get alternative meals like sandwiches or cheese and crackers. “Students get the same meal as everyone else,” Harvey said, adding, “I get very upset when I hear other districts take food away and give an alternative meal – those babies can’t help it.”

He said the toughest issue is collecting the money owed from the parents, but he’ll work out payment plans with them if needed.

“I’ll bend over backwards to work out what they owe us. There’s no way in the world I would ever want to embarrass or hurt the kids in our schools (because they can’t pay),” Harvey said. “We’re going to feed them, and if money is owed, we’ll visit with the parents and get it collected.”

At the middle and high school level, students are allowed up to three charges and after that, they must see the cafeteria manager.

Harvey said the students have to sign a sheet saying they had to charge lunch, which then puts some of the responsibility of paying the owed money on the student, because at that grade, the students are supposed to be old enough to accept some of the responsibility.

“It’s harder to get money from secondary students than elementary parents,” Harvey added.

The Arkansas Department of Education’s Child Nutrition Guidelines require schools be reimbursed for every meal served; if a student can’t pay, the money comes from the district’s operating fund, which officials hope will be paid back by the parents.
Lonoke secondary students can charge as often as three times before parents are called about money owed, but those students won’t go hungry even if it means eating a subsidized meal.

“We’ll usually just give them the same meal as the other students and then try to get money from parents,” Sue Roedel, food service director of Lonoke schools, said.

Lonoke primary and elementary students will always be allowed to eat, regardless of ability to pay.

“We would never deny them a meal and would never separate them out,” Roedel said, adding, “They are so young, it might scar them for life.”

She said she is most concerned about those students who fall through the cracks, the ones who don’t qualify for the free or reduced meals but still face a financial hardship.

“I wish Congress would do something to provide free meals across the board. It would be better for the education systems, and I think if would make all the difference,” Roedel said.

In Lonoke, some owed accounts are carried over yearly. Roedel said it might be the student’s senior year before the district gets the money back.

“For the most part, the accounts are paid off at the end of the year, even if we have to use the district’s operational fund to balance out at the end of the year, but the money is still owed by the parent and when we get it in, it goes back into the operational fund,” she said.

And just like any bill, if it comes down to it, Roedel said the district will turn the matter over to the prosecuting attorney’s office and collect the owed money that way.

“We had some accounts last year that owed over $100. We told the parents they had three days to make arrangements with us to either pay in full or in installments, but after the three days we had no choice but to turn it over to the prosecuting attorney,” she said.

In Cabot, kindergarten through sixth-grade students are allowed to charge up to $17.50, but no charging is allowed for seventh- through 12th-graders.

“When their account reaches $17.50, the principal is notified and they contact the parent,” Erin Hartz, Cabot’s director of food services, said. “The parent is asked to either pay on the account or to pack their child’s lunch until the account is paid.
“However, the student is still allowed to eat if the account is not paid or the child doesn’t bring lunch,” Hartz said.

Once students reach the junior high and high school level, if they don’t have money to eat, they must seek approval from personnel on duty in the cafeteria.

The Cabot district has approximately $5,000 in owed lunches that has not been collected from last school year, Hartz said.
“However, payment arrangements have been made with all of these families to eliminate their charges,” she said.

Lists of unpaid charges are sent to school principals, who then make contact with the parents.

“Parents are encouraged to submit an application for free and reduced meals if they are having financial difficulties,” Hartz said. “We want to make sure that we are supportive of our parents and students.”

In White County, Beebe students eat the same lunch regardless of their money situation and grade level.

Jackie Rowe, director of child nutrition, said for pre-kindergarten through fourth-grade students, there is no limit on the number of times the child is allowed to charge; the official policy for fifth- through eight-graders, per the district’s handbook, is only three charges, and ninth- through 12th-graders are not allowed to charge at all.

Even though the policy states only three charges, that’s usually not the case.

“Fifth- and sixth-graders are allowed to keep charging and we let the parent know they are above the charge limit,” Rowe said. “For seventh- and eighth-graders, after three charges they have to go talk with the principal, who then sends them back to the cafeteria to eat lunch.”

At the high school level (ninth- through 12th-grade), Rowe said if students do not have money to eat, they must see the cafeteria manager.

“The cafeteria manager keeps a student-loan fund, which we (cafeteria employees) add to regularly, and the student is allowed to borrow from that account. The students sign a log acknowledging they borrowed money from the fund, and most of the time they pay us back,” Rowe said.

Once charges reach a set limit, charge slips are sent home weekly with the students notifying parents of the amount their child owes. Each school building also sends letters, and the principals get in touch with parents in an effort to collect the money.

If the money has not been collected by the end of the year, Rowe said calls continue to be made to parents during the summer.

“We don’t collect all the (owed) money by far,” she said, and because the accounts must still be paid, each building has to use their activity funds to get the accounts out of the red for the end of the year.

“Some buildings have to use $1,300 to $1,400 from their activity funds,” Rowe said. “The principals continue to call parents so their funds are reimbursed, but for the most part, it’s not collected.”