The District participates in the federal lunch and breakfast programs to ensure that students in need have access to quality meals twice a day. No student who qualifies for this program has ever had an impact on their meal, and receives breakfast and lunch based on federal guidelines. Students can qualify for the program at any time throughout the year to respond to changes in family situations.
In 2015, the District implemented a new charge regulation aimed at limiting debt accrual, with the intention of supporting families who may have financial struggles. School administrators reach out to families with a negative balance as an alternative to a “collections” call. This allows a school representative who has rapport with the family the opportunity to offer support. In some cases, families become qualified for free/reduced price meals while other families arrange a payment plan to ensure that they could successfully meet their obligation.
In 95% of the cases, families immediately work with staff to plan a resolution. When significant debt occurs, the third and final option is to offer parents the choice of provision of an alternate meal. This conversation is never directed at a child and never done in a public setting. This final step has proven successful in resolving much outstanding debt, as most parents recognize the seriousness of the situation when this possibility is shared with them.
Accompanying the meal charge regulation implementation was a communication system that informs families at several points along the way of their child’s lunch account balance. Parents receive regular text messages, emails, and phone calls notifying them when their account is getting low, when they have a zero balance, and when they have a negative balance. This communication, coupled with the personal outreach of school staff, led to a debt reduction in the year following implementation, with the District ending the 2015-16 school year with less than $1,500 in lunch debt. We are proud of the student-focused nature of our efforts to ensure fiscal solvency while ensuring our students receive proper nutrition while at school. Furthermore, the regulation did lead the district to drastically reduce the financial burden on its educational resources.
In 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal meal program, issued a directive to participants to put into place a charge policy requiring that districts not allow excessive debt to build within their program. The District’s lunch regulation complies with that requirement to ensure 9-R continues to qualify for the program. The federal government has expressed deep concern that subsidies provided are being used for students who don’t meet qualifications. While only 28% of 9-R students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the funding from the government to support their lunch makes up for 60% of the program revenues. The District has also been directed by state and federal officials to increase meal prices over time to more closely align with the actual cost of the meals, explaining the incremental lunch price increases over the past several years.
Last year, a public notice was posted at a 9-R school where meal debt was excessive. While the notice was considered shaming, the action was outside of the District’s protocol and the issue was appropriately dealt with. This action has not been repeated, and appropriate signage and outreach efforts have been enforced. Sadly, this picture continues to be posted as if it continues to occur or is prevalent in the District. In the social media world, misinformation spreads quickly. The posts around this issue led to only a handful of individuals reaching out for facts. Even the media refused offers to provide factual information around this meal regulation, choosing instead to run numerous erroneous stories.
Again, no student is denied a lunch, no student has a lunch taken out of their hands, and no student is shamed for lacking breakfast or lunch money. Payment remains an adult issue that is dealt with by parents and District staff. We have amazing Food & Nutrition Department staff members, who sadly have been treated poorly by members of our community based on misinformation communicated these past few weeks. These individuals work very hard for our students to provide and educate students on good nutrition daily with very little recognition. They deserve high praise and I encourage our community to express that to them at the next opportunity.
The District has greatly appreciated the donations received to help support lunch debt incurred by full-pay families. Any member of the community that wants to provide support may do so by directing funds to the Durango School District 9-R Finance Department, with messaging indicating it is to be used for lunch debt. All such funds will be tracked and utilized to help cover the debt of families that don’t respond to other district offers of support. Unfortunately, donations to outside funding sites cannot be guaranteed to reach the District.
The District will be reaching out to state and federal partners for guidance on any modification that can be made to the regulation and maintain compliance with federal guidelines. The District continues to ensure great care of our children in all facets of their school day and protect resources provided by our taxpayers to ensure that we fulfill the mission of the District and meet the needs of our students.Please know that the Superintendent of Schools is always willing to meet with individuals to provide accurate information and also to hear your ideas, thoughts and concerns, and can be reached at (970) 375-3819 or by email at DSnowberger@durangoschools.org