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SMS cracks down on negative lunch balances

Superior Telegram

A Thursday night call to parents of Superior Middle School students regarding lunch account balances sparked concerns and Facebook debate Friday.

In the message, principal Rick Flaherty reminded families that students would be getting a lunch account report Friday showing their balance, whether negative or positive. Students with a negative lunch balance would not be allowed to eat school lunch beginning today unless they have $2.30 cash to pay for the food or a positive balance.

The message to pay up comes as the Superior School District’s food service department grapples with $40,000 worth of unpaid lunch accounts. Roughly a quarter of the deficit comes from Superior Middle School students.

"It’s the hardest part of the job for my staff," said Food Service Director Jamie Wilson. "The only thing we want to do is feed these kids."

Students on free and reduced lunch will not be affected by the move, and all students can still receive free breakfast and supper through the district.

"We’re still feeding kids," Wilson said.

Lunch is the federally-mandated sticking point.

"We’re legally not allowed to feed children with a negative balance," Wilson said. "We’re not allowed to give food away."

An initial phone message went out to middle school parents the previous week, Wilson said, and Flaherty has been reminding students of the lunch account reckoning during daily announcements.

District-wide, parents in arrears are bombarded with reminders from food service, sometimes for being a mere nickel in the red.

"We call 2,800 families a week with low balance notices," Wilson said, and send letters home as well. "This isn’t a surprise."

The Superior school district serves 4,400 meals a day, between breakfast, lunch and supper. How negative balances are dealt with depends on the age of the student.

"We don’t take trays in elementary school," Wilson said. "We feed them."

At Superior High School, students are notified by email and phone calls when their lunch account falls below $10.

"We start talking to them," Wilson said. "We let them have two days’ worth of meals." Once they are $5 in the red, they are no longer allowed to get a lunch tray.

The district does provide a free peanut butter sandwich and milk to students at the high school and middle school level with no lunch money, he said.

Middle school parents are getting the message, Wilson said, and many of them have contacted the district office following the calls.

"I don’t know how many trays we’ll be taking next week, but I expect it will be a handful," Wilson said Friday.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act does not allow food service departments to carry a negative balance. On July 1, the lunch accounts in the red will be sent to collections.

Last year, parents left the district with $50,000 in debt for unpaid lunches. Only accounts that owed the district $30 or more were sent to collections — about $35,000. The rest of that debt ended up being covered with general fund revenue.

Wilson hopes to address the problem this summer by getting more families to fill out the free and reduced lunch application by the time school starts.

"The free and reduced numbers have gone down, but I don’t believe less kids need the services," he said. It’s the application numbers that are down.

Only 600 applications were submitted for the 2015-2016 school year. About another 1,500 students receiving direct services like food stamps don’t need to fill out a form to receive free or reduced lunch. But the district educates about 5,000 students.

A higher population of students receiving free and reduced lunch means more lunches served. It also fuels the free breakfast and supper programs and ties into providing Title I teachers field trips and extra snack programs.

"Those forms are so important to so many different departments of school," Wilson said. He encouraged every family to fill out the form, even if they don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch. If a family’s financial situation changes over the year, they can fill out a new application.

Superior Middle School does maintain an onsite fund to provide lunch to students who are denied and donations are accepted, but Wilson said it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the need.

He encouraged families with concerns to contact the food service department at 715-394-8707 to see what can be done to ensure their children can continue to eat lunch.