WW food service director requests no more alternative meals

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

At most schools, when a student reaches a certain negative balance in their lunch account, the school offers them an alternative meal to the regular hot meal other students get. It’s the same at West Washington for students with at least -$25 in their accounts … technically.

Food Service Director Joni Muchler said she told her staff not to give students with negative balances the alternative meals since she came into the position. Students have been receiving the same hot meals all students receive through the school kitchens, regardless of their balance. She would like to make that a policy with the school.

“All students deserve a hot meal,” she said in the January board meeting. “Just the same as their peers, no matter what the dollar amount is in their account. There’s a lot of research that backs that up. We would never deny a student school books for the year if they couldn’t pay their book fee. Why would we deny them a hot meal if they can’t pay?”

She said, as of Friday, Jan. 17, the school had a negative balance of $10,467, about half of which is tied to students who are no longer enrolled, and thus the school is unlikely to recuperate that money. Some of that negative balance comes from students who were on paid lunches for a while, but have since switched to the free or reduced lunch program without paying their balance.

“I’ve done a lot of research,” said Muchler, “looking at what other schools are doing, what studies say about it, the numbers, that type of thing. Most likely those funds, we really shouldn’t be asking for, once they go into that free and reduced status … I know the numbers look scary, but looking around, it’s not as bad as some.”

Still, she said, she hopes to come up with a policy and a method that would still hold individuals accountable for the debts their students incur. She said she has reached out to both principals to develop a way to collect what funds they can.

“I feel in no way, shape or form that students should be burdened with this,” she said. “They have enough to worry about. I’m trying to do this in a way that takes them out of the picture and not give them any extra weight of that to carry.”

Muchler said she has been trying to implement small things to keep that negative balance from growing and said some of the problem is likely due to a lack of education about what the school charges for.

“We can’t expect people to do something that they don’t know they should or shouldn’t be doing,” she said.

For instance, free and reduced lunch students (along with students with negative balances) must pay for extra items or seconds beyond the regular breakfast and lunch. Muchler said she has seen students with negative balances and are now under the free lunch status going back for extra items or seconds and not paying for them at the time, incurring debt in their accounts.

Muchler said she has put notices in the school newsletter about this and said she tries to spend time in the serving lines at lunchtime.

“Kids will come back through for that second meal and actually pay for the second meal now,” she said. “Just little things like that are helping … There’s an effort, and there’s a difference between this and burdening the kids because their parents haven’t paid their lunch account. We can tell them, ‘OK, you’ve had a nice, hot meal, but the second one, you’ve got to pay for that one.’”

She said the cafeteria sends home paper reminder slips with students on Fridays and she and her staff have called parents, but those calls often go unanswered. They’ve sent letters after certain points the accounts dip, but those don’t always get responses, either. Muchler said she’s started looking through the accounts that are growing in deficit and sending free and reduced lunch applications home with some students. If parents are struggling to pay for school lunches, she wanted to remind parents they can apply for the free and reduced lunch program at any point in the year.

Muchler suggested that the principals calling parents once a balance reaches a certain level, possibly -$100, may be impactful than food service staff making the calls.

Superintendent Keith Nance said the school has tried other methods, including contracting with a collections agency and small claims court, to recuperate these funds.

“If we take them to small claims court, we don’t always get paid,” he said.

Corporation Secretary Carol Hoar said she has sat through these court hearings on multiple occasions.

“They’ll tell the judge they’ll pay it and sign an agreement and then they walk out the door and that’s the last I ever hear from them,” she said. “I’ll spend all that time, sitting up there at court and I get hardly anything, ever.”

“I don’t even know if that’s the best approach,” said Muchler. “I think we need to communicate. Do we set up at Jump Start? Because if students are there for free school supplies, then surely they’ll be willing to apply for free and reduced lunch. We could put something out there on Facebook that someone will be here from 3 to 6 p.m. and help you fill out the paperwork. I think it’s just educating them, communicating with them and helping them realize school benefits. The greater percentage we are free and reduced, that makes us more eligible for grant opportunities. Maybe down the road, we can be eligible for the CEP, where everyone eats free. I know for some people, it’s a pride issue. It’s a matter of how we can do that without them feeling bad.”

She said she is working with student council members, not only to help decipher what students think about lunches, but also ways to help alleviate the financial concerns about students and their families not paying what they owe.

“They have been really vocal about wanting to do something to help their peers and so they have come up with some ideas as far as raising funds,” said Muchler. “I’ve had people in the community come to me, including one gentleman whose son just graduated from here. He’s a local pastor and he’s expressed interest in working with local churches to come up with a fund as well to help pay off some of the negative school lunch balances. I think if these things are done properly and with a lot of thought and effort, it’s something that might be sustainable and might continue to roll over.”

She said she is working on a way that donated funds would be distributed fairly among the students with negative balances.

Board Member Sal Sama suggested that, with the removal of alternative meals, students would lose the incentive to pay their debt. Both Muchler and Nance said this would lead to more hungry students.

“Kids at their age are going through so much,” said Muchler. “I don’t know if we could really call alternative meals lunch shaming, but we have kids who have said, ‘Well, if I have to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I’m going to turn around and leave because everybody’s going to know that my mom or dad or whoever hasn’t paid the bill.’ They’re going to be singled out. It is what it is. We have hungry kids. We have started, in the past two weeks, packaging up all of our leftovers to donate to go home with kids who receive food from the Senator food pantry. I don’t know how many meals, but it’s been a lot that we have been able to send home with kids who may not have any food.”

Muchler gave an example of a student whose mother hadn’t been able to go to the food bank, but would hopefully make it that evening. She was really hungry at school and was given extra for breakfast that morning, with no questions asked.

“If she had had just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and milk the day before and went home to nothing … is that the answer?” Muchler asked. “Is that what we want to do?”

The board asked Muchler to research this matter more and come back to them in a future meeting with some proposed resolutions.

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