Itawamba County School District leaders are hoping a new policy for student-charged meals will help reduce the school district’s ballooning lunchroom debt.
In early May 2019, unpaid lunchroom charges by students reached over $48,000 countywide. According to Itawamba County Superintendent of Education Trae Wiygul, the debt resulted in a decision by the local school board to place restrictions on paying the charges.
“We were able to get the unpaid balance down to around $31,000 by the end of May, but it’s an ongoing problem, so we felt we had to address making policy changes,” Wiygul said.
The purpose of the policy is to ensure compliance with federal reporting requirements for the USDA Child Nutrition Program, to provide rules and regulations for the charging of meals and to provide oversight and accountability for the collection of outstanding student meal balances. The policy will take effect at the beginning of the fall semester. When the new school year begins, parents and/or guardians will be given a copy of the new policy along with the free/reduced meal form.
“The biggest change in the policy is the restrictions if the balance is not paid,” Wiygul said. “We want parents and students to be aware that it’s in place and what privileges it affects.”
The new policy states that free status students will be allowed to receive a free breakfast and lunch each day, but the purchase of extras must be paid in cash or in advance.
Full pay students will pay for meals at the district’s published standard rate each day. Reduced pay students will pay for meals at the federal government’s published rate. A student will be allowed to charge a maximum of $25 to his or her account. Extras cannot be charged.
The school district previously had no limit to the amount a student could charge to his or her account, resulting in unpaid meal fees in the hundreds of dollars. “he district would make multiple attempts to collect debts, including contacting families via certified letters, but often to no avail.
Under the new policy, once a student’s account has reached a deficient amount of $25, he or she will not be allowed to attend any field trips or be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports, band and drama. Students will also be barred from driving to school. Those in violation of the new policy will have their cars towed, school district officials said.
At the end of each grading term, a student’s balance must be paid in full or he or she won’t be issued a report card and will not be exempt from exams. If the student is set to graduate, he or she will not be allowed to participate in commencement ceremonies until the debt is paid.
Balances for student purchased meals remain on the books indefinitely. If a student is without meal money on a consistent basis, the administration will investigate the situation more closely.
School district officials acknowledged that the new policy may seem harsh, but it’s meant to resolve the district’s longstanding debt collection issues. Itawamba County Child Nutrition Director Kenny Coker encourages parents who struggle to pay lunchroom fees to carefully examine the free/reduced forms given to students at the beginning of the school year. Some may toss the form aside not realizing their household does qualify.
“Every year, the income scale goes up,” Coker said. “Although we haven’t received this year’s numbers, last year it was $3,200 a month.”
Coker acknowledged that some parents may not fill out the forms because of the stigma that is often attached to receiving a free or reduced meal. He said the privacy of both parents and students is protected through the system the school has in place.
“Each student is given a code that is keyed into a computer when they go through the line,” Coker said. “No one, not even the teachers, knows who receives free or reduced lunches.”
Coker said the easiest way to apply for benefits is the online application available through the school’s website, itawambacountyschools.com, beginning July 15. Last year, more than 500 households applied through the online service. During the 2018-2019 school year, 2,400 of the county’s 3,500 students received free or reduced meals.
“Forms must be filled out every year,” Coker said. “If a family doesn’t have access to apply online, we will be glad to help them at the county office. Just bring your address and household income.”
Families who pay full price have online options as well. The school utilizes www.myschoolbucks.com where parents/guardians can log on and pay in advance for their child’s meals. Automatic payments can be set up on the site, and parents can receive alerts when their balance is low.
Coker said the system provides a quick and efficient way for parents to know firsthand where their balances stand.
Currently, a full-price lunch is $3, and breakfast is $1.25. Per week, the full-price cost is $21.25. Reduced meals are 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast, or $3.50 per week. Federal reimbursement is 26 cents for reduced meals and $3.36 for free meals.
The school is required by law to provide every student with a meal. If a student who is otherwise entitled to free or reduced meals receives a full-price meal without paying, unpaid charges rack up and no federal reimbursements are received. It’s a losing situation for both parents and the school district.
The intent behind the new policy is to establish uniform meal account procedures throughout the Itawamba County School District and hopefully resolve the climbing debt.
“We’ve been contacted by several other school districts who are looking at putting a policy in place similar to ours,” Coker said. “Although our deficit is high, it’s not as high as some of the surrounding counties.”
The new policy states the goal of the Itawamba School District is to provide students with healthy nutritious meals each day. However, it’s the unpaid charges that have placed a large financial burden with our Food Services Department. Wiygul hopes putting the policy in place will turn the situation around.
“The deficit amount could mean the salary for another teacher,” Wiygul said. “We’re addressing this issue one step at a time, and we need the county’s help in doing so.”