By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2016-06-09 15:15:33
Best practices for effective operations Between a Rock and a Hard Place In search of effective strategies to address unresolved meal charge debt. You do so much that is right, making yours a gold-standard operation. Your serving lines offer multiple choices and beautiful presentation. The students participate in fun promotions at least once a month. You’re meeting the new meal patterns with little plate waste and strong participation. And then one parent flies into a rage about a “courtesy meal” their child received when repeated warnings about a low account balance were overlooked. Suddenly, the story has gone viral, members of the national media—not just local reporters—are calling, and you’re getting nasty tweets. Great. Just great. It’s beyond frustrating, because you know you have a reasonable approach to delinquent meal accounts and, frankly, the parent has been irresponsible. And even though you’ve been able to back up your actions with proof of multiple warnings—and despite the parent sheepishly admitting culpability for dropping the ball— the genie is out of the bottle and you’re left with a mess. A Thorny Issue You’re not alone. The SNA 2014 Operations Report found that nearly 71% of district director members report that their operation had unpaid student meal debt at the end of SY 2012-13. The amount of debt varies significantly, with the median dollar amounts ranging from $700 among the smallest districts to $20,000 among the largest. One mega district cited student account debt reaching into the millions. The paid meal equity provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 forced many school meal programs to increase prices, regardless of financial solvency. Although districts work hard to enroll qualifying low-income families for free/reduced-price lunches, there are many families who are not eligible, but still struggle to cover the cost of a daily school lunch. Exacerbating the situation further is the fact that USDA has taken a hands-off approach to this issue, considering it a local decision, but still requiring school meal operations to clear the bad debt, without any further guidance on how to do that. State agency directors agree that the ambiguity in the law is very frustrating. In 2014, Under Secretary, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon sent a letter to chief state school officers, stating that USDA was “deeply troubled by a recent incident where meals were taken away from several elementary school children, allegedly due to outstanding balances on their school meal accounts.” According to Concannon, the position of USDA/FNS is that “denying or taking food away from children is a form of punishment and stigmatizes children whose parents are behind on payments.” While confirming that this is ultimately a local policy, he urged states and local educational agencies to step up efforts to confirm that a child’s free/reduce eligibility had not changed; use “a more robust notification system for households with low balances”; and consider CEP enrollment. Indeed, many districts have found relief in CEP (Community Eligibility Provision), which allows schools in high-poverty areas to offer breakfast and lunch free of charge to all students without collecting and processing school meal applications. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, more than 18,000 high-poverty schools in nearly 3,000 school districts across the country have adopted CEP in its second year of nationwide availability. This is an increase of about 4,000 schools compared to the prior year. Thus, it was with great, collective dismay that school nutrition professionals greeted a plan by the U.S. House of Representatives to restrict school eligibility for CEP (see page 12). USDA Update The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requires USDA to examine current policies and practices pertaining to unpaid meal charges and report on the feasibility of establishing national standards on meal charges and alternate meals. In February 2016, USDA presented a webinar, “The Challenges of Unpaid Meals: Proven Strategies From Our Nation’s Schools,” which presented the results of its Special Nutrition Program Operations Study. USDA had published a request for information on local-level approaches in October 2014. The comment period ended in January 2015. A total of 462 comments were received. (Note: SNA surveyed its members with USDA’s specific questions and presented its findings in its formal comments.) Among USDA’s findings: • 87% indicated that policies and procedures were in place for handling meal charges; many limit the charges, allowing more or less leniency based on age. • Most indicated that school officials were involved in developing the policy. • Alternate meals were provided either at no cost or for a small amount ($1 to cover the cost of food). A few charged the paid meal price, which likely increased the debt owed by the students. • Examples of alternate meals included cheese or peanut butter sandwich, fruit and milk; lower-cost entrees with other components; and brown bag lunches. The USDA webinar presenters indicated that the next steps for USDA were to submit a report to Congress; clarify and update existing guidance; and collect and share best practices that meet the needs of schools, students and families. Ideas to Try School Nutrition has collected some of those best practices from the USDA webinar, SNA educational programming and other research. There are a number of practical suggestions you may want to explore. Some school districts have asked parents to set up an automatic debit from their bank accounts when the meal account reaches a certain level. Notification about low balances continue to be sent, but if the information falls through the cracks in a busy home/family life, the school account is covered and the child eats the meal of her choice. Provide parents with an estimate about the total cost of school meal charges for the entire year. “I was told at the beginning of the year that I’d pay so much for band uniform rentals, sports, booster clubs, PTA, etc. But the lunch program and its costs for the year was never discussed,” says Kenny Thompson, founder of Feed the Future Forward (see box this page). “I don’t think parents understand the amount it will cost for a child paying the reduced-price or paid price when you factor in 178 school days. Informing them of this upfront—and even collecting the total (or a portion) upfront could help.” Because delinquent parents aren’t typically delinquent only on school meal accounts, some districts have retained collections firms to pursue debt related to school meals as well as other school based fees. Court action is a powerful incentive. As noted by Barbara Lloyd in the box on page 34, districts may establish a policy to withhold report cards and transcripts until bad debt is cleared. There are reports of some communities proposing to take more drastic measures, prohibiting students from participating in the graduation ceremony or various extracurricular activities. In some cases, the best practice comes in mitigating how the alternative meal is served. Lloyd notes that children now stop at the cashier station first. There, they are notified if they must take a courtesy meal. Another adult is stationed at the end of the serving line to ensure that all students have taken the required components for reimbursable meals. You simply can’t over-communicate this information. Provide periodic reminders about both meal applications and the meal charge policy in school publications. Go beyond the automated call to an automated text message to alert parents to low or negative balances. Always ensure that your reminders are available in the different languages spoken in your community. Funds established with contributions from the community can help (see the box this page). A school district in the Midwest allows families to apply to use short-term funding from a community program. Serving alternate meals discretely in a brown lunch sack or insulated bag is a great way to preserve a student’s dignity. Another suggestion is to allow students with negative balances to pick up their alternate meals from the nurse’s office or have them delivered to classrooms; this provides the appearance that the student brought the meal from home. If an alternate meal is served in the cafeteria, it should be available for purchase, as well, in order to prevent overt identification. No Easy Answers There’s no doubt that many school nutrition operators will struggle with being caught between a financial rock and a media hard place. Kids should not be caught in the middle, and front-line cafeteria staff have been known to cover a child’s tab out of their own pockets. Now that’s a story that deserves more media attention. ONE DISTRICT’S TALE OF MEAL CHARGE WOE It seems as though the school nutrition team in Edmonds (Wash.) School District has tried it all when it comes to finding a compassionate but pragmatic approach to managing school meal debt—and still they struggle with both negative publicity and negative balances. Food Service Director Barbara Lloyd, RDN, SNS, shared her frustrations as a panelist on a 2014 SNA webinar on the topic of “Resolving Unpaid Meal Charges.” The Edmonds district, located 30 miles north of Seattle, has 20,000 students; 38% of them eligible for free/reduced-price meals. It was, remembers Lloyd, “one of the first to receive national attention on this matter, way back in 2008—over a cheese sandwich.” Prior to 2005, before the operation had a POS software system, K-6 students were allowed to have up to three breakfasts and three lunches without paying. They were notified in line when they were getting close to running out of meals; after their allotment, they were given a substitute meal once they’d reached the cashier at the end of the serving line. Students in grades 7-12 were not allowed any free meals. All debt was forgiven at the end of each school year. When a parent objected to the distressing practice, the district changed its policy. Students were allowed to have full reimbursable meals, regardless of their ability to pay. No substitute meals were given. “We had implemented an automated POS by then, and could send notes home easily to alert parents,” recounts Lloyd. “Our thinking was that with enough communication to the parents, they would be responsible and pay that money back. But by the end of 2008, it was clear we were being taken advantage of.” That’s an understatement: By the end of SY 2007-08, the uncollected debt had risen to more than $200,000! “For the first time in 15 years, our operation ended in the red,” Lloyd laments. Time for another change in approach. Now, students were allowed to accumulate a total debt of no more than $15. Once that amount is reached, the student receives a “Safety Net Meal,” now called a “Courtesy Meal.” Low-balance letters are generated. Negative-balance letters are generated. Automated phone messages are generated. Report cards and transcripts are withheld by Board policy. Payment plans are offered to families who owe more than $500. All to little avail.“We were carrying over bad debt from one year into the next in the hopes that parents would pay it back, but they just didn’t, despite our best efforts,” Lloyd reports. “To this day, we still have money owing.” Edmonds had its fair share of local lunch angels, too (see page 38). Some school principals maintained accounts that allowed them to help students with temporary financial difficulties. But some of these principals closed these accounts when parents failed to help replenish the funds. In May 2010, Edmonds transitioned to a hard line “no-credit” policy that applies to all age levels. Parents are notified when a courtesy meal is issued. After three consecutive courtesy meals, the principal is informed. There is no limit on the number of courtesy meals for K-6 students; those in grades 7-12 are allowed up to four per month. Last year, the cost to Lloyd’s department to provide those alternative meals was $12,000, on top of the debts already racked up. “Those costs are incurred by our department, because we want to give the kids something to get them through the afternoon, because we support education,” she explains, adding, “At least this is cheaper than the $200,000. WHEN REPORTERS CALL A child has received an alternate “courtesy meal” because her account balance is in the red. Adults are outraged. Social media posts go viral, and before you can say “batten down the hatches,” a local reporter is on the phone wanting to know the details about your policy. The Minnesota School Nutrition Association (MSNA) has developed and shared talking points that are appropriate whether you live in Minneapolis or Mifflinburg. Above all, follow your district protocol. Are you permitted to respond to media inquiries directly or must those funnel through the district’s communications office? If you can respond yourself—or if your communications officer needs help—consider some or all of the following statements: • As school nutrition professionals, we want students to receive healthy meals in the cafeteria every day. Ensuring that kids have access to healthy foods in a comfortable and welcoming environment is at the heart of what we do. • In this tough economy, many schools have experienced an increase in “unpaid meal charges” when parents, for whatever reason, aren’t paying for the meals their students receive. • School meal programs are required to be self-sustaining and financially independent of the school district’s education budget. • Some school nutrition programs have accumulated thousands of dollars in unpaid meal charge debt, and when parents don’t pay, the school nutrition operation is expected to cover the tab. [If applicable, insert information on your district’s meal charge debt.] • This debt affects school meals for all students. • USDA does not require schools to serve a complimentary meal, but provides no guidance to schools on meal charge policies. Schools are left with the difficult task of deciding what to serve students without lunch money. • Significant unpaid meal charge debts have forced many schools to institute controversial “charge policies.” [If applicable, insert information on your district’s meal charge policy.] • As school nutrition professionals we want to focus on feeding our kids healthy meals. • As more schools and families grapple with this difficult issue, USDA needs to work with school nutrition professionals to identify a compassionate and fair way to handle meal charges. FIND AN ANGEL When the story of little Susie’s cheese sandwich courtesy meal goes viral, it might provoke some generosity, along with the outrage. A few nonprofit organizations have risen from the ashes of the hot-button media story to help provide funding support to cover individual meal charge debts and eliminate the need to provide alternate meals. In general, “lunch angels” initiatives tend to work directly with a single school or single district—but perhaps you can identify a passionate and compassionate principal, teacher or parent willing to invest the time and energy into such a project and devise a system to make it sustainable year after year. Kenny Thompson is founder of Feed the Future Forward and the Lunch Super Hero Fund. He participated in a 2014 SNA webinar on “Resolving Unpaid Meal Charges.” Thompson is a volunteer and mentor at a Houston-area school and when he observed an elementary student receiving an alternate meal at lunch, he and his wife (a teacher at the school) made the decision to cover the school meal debt for all of the students at the site. “We kind of adopted our school,” he explained. When his story went viral, he began receiving donations from all over the country—“I was barraged by letters and contributions”— and he decided to establish a non-profit organization to channel those funds accordingly and work with a number of Texas school districts to eliminate their policies of providing students with an alternate meal. To learn more about the organization’s mission and ongoing success, visit www. feedthefutureforward.com. Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition and senior director of Digital and Print Communications at SNA.
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