Board shifts lunch policy: Grades 7 to 12 now allowed to charge meals

GREENFIELD — Greenfield-Central junior high and high school students can receive hot lunches even if they don’t have money in their accounts to pay for the meal, district officials have decided.

The Greenfield-Central School Board voted Monday to amend the district’s lunch policy to give all its students — kindergarten through 12th grade — the chance to receive a hot meal at lunchtime even if the purchase takes their account balance into the negative.

Until this school year, cafeteria workers throughout the district were instructed to take away a student’s hot lunch when the child couldn’t pay for it and replace it with an alternative meal, like a cheese sandwich. There was some leeway, however; students were able to charge for up to three days.

Ahead of the new academic year, board members gave the district’s youngest pupils the power to charge their accounts indefinitely, agreeing that elementary and intermediate school students who ran out of money should be allowed to keep their tray of hot food no matter the circumstances. Parents of elementary students have 20 days to pay those bills before they’re passed on to collections.

Junior high and high school students were not given the same leeway.

But Monday night, after receiving complaints from parents, the board decided to alter its decision and allow junior high and high school students to charge up to four meals at a time. After that, they won’t be able to charge their hot meal, and it won’t be replaced with an alternative meal.

School leaders had hoped moving away from alternative meals would spare students from being embarrassed when they have no money in their accounts.

Before the new school year started, the district sent parents notice of the original change in the lunchroom policy, telling them if their older students didn’t have lunch money and didn’t bring a sack lunch, they wouldn’t eat.

But that decision drew criticism from parents, who were worried some students might go a whole school day without eating.

Monday night, Superintendent Harold Olin asked school board members to weigh in on the issue.

In the first nine days of school year, no students went without lunch, he said. Those junior high and high school students with no money in their accounts were still given a hot meal as school leaders tracked how prevalent the issue is, he said.

Food services director Tony Zurwell said on average both the junior high and high school gave six to eight meals a day to students with no lunch money.

District leaders could provide any older student a hot meal when they don’t have money, but that might get costly for the district, said Olin, who estimated it would cost $15,000 or more a year.

They also could allow all students to charge their accounts for meals and give parents time to pay the bills before passing them on to a collections agency. That, too, would cost the district — about $6 for every bill leaders forward to an agency, Olin said.

Greenfield Central Junior High principal Dan Jack told board members he hasn’t noticed a pattern among the students who come to school with no lunch money. Mostly, the school is dealing with students who are sometimes forgetful and leave home with no lunch, he said.

During a lengthy discussion Monday night, school board members agreed there is no easy answer to solving the problem.

When they scrapped alternative meals for elementary kids, school leaders argued students in seventh- through 12th-grades were old enough to tell their parents when their account is getting low. At the high school level, they’re even able to get jobs if they need help paying for lunch, they said.

School board president Retta Livengood argued Monday night the responsibility of ensuring students eat shouldn’t fall to the district.

“It’s a parent’s responsibility to feed their children,” she said. “To feed them breakfast. To feed them dinner, and to make provisions to feed them lunch.”

And if they need help, aid is in place, Livengood said. School leaders already make efforts to inform parents of the free and reduced-price lunch program for low-income students, she said.

But board member Hillary Close said some families might be embarrassed to ask for help, and that shouldn’t mean a student should have to go hungry.

Board member Dan Brown echoed those sentiments, adding that hunger can cause students to be distracted. Studies show students who are hungry aren’t usually as successful as students with full bellies, he said.

The board voted to allow students to charge four tray meals to their accounts, and if parents don’t pay, the bills will be sent to a collections agency. Students won’t be able to charge a la carte options, like bags of chips, the board decided.

Livengood said by allowing students to charge a few meals, the district is being accommodating to families’ busy schedules and forgetfulness while also being mindful of district finances.

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.