Food for Thought: Alternate Lunch

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By Patti Rigby Carbon School District Child Nutrition Director

We at Carbon School District have noted community commentary and concern regarding the Alternate Lunch initiative. Students eating the sack lunches are sometimes choosing them over the hot or munchable options OR their parents are choosing it for them. The alternate is nutritionally equal to the hot choice. We reached out to all households before school started regarding outstanding balances. As Rick Shaw pointed out in his article there was $47,000 in parental debt on accounts. Thanks to our collection campaign via parentlink, social media, both local papers, radio, Salt Lake Tribune, mailing and calls home to households with outstanding balances, we managed to collect about 65% of that debt.

The first few days of school had a few hiccups and there was much speculation about misconceptions regarding the Alternate Lunch. This has led to many phone calls and questions. But it has also led to many parents specifically choosing the Alternate Lunch each day for their child. The cost of that lunch to parents is $.35 versus $1.80 for elementary age, $1.90 for middle and $2.20 for high school. The federal regulation states that we must allow parents to choose the alternate even though we lose money on them because they cost more than $.35 to make. The Alternate Lunch is a great step forward over past years when students in middle and high school were asked to call home to have lunch or lunch money brought to them. This way, a student is never turned away. No student ever goes hungry.

This change came about because the federal government required each school district participating in the school lunch program to have a policy in place by July 1, 2017. In practice, the past eight years, elementary students were allowed to eat on a deficient account and clerks tirelessly tried to collect money from parents. The older students could charge up to seven lunches before being asked to call home for lunch or funds. In one case, a principal had a fund to cover lunches at their school but at year’s end the account exceeded $2,000 and it was no longer feasible.

With a written policy requirement now, a review of our then-current practice was closely scrutinized. We had $47,000 in uncollected lunch revenues. This debt was discussed at our Federal Review in March. Our state specialists advised raising the cost of student lunches across the board. That seemed unfair, keeping in mind, the debt was almost entirely from families that could pay but had not; from parents whose children are full pay status and did not qualify for free or reduced lunches. It is unfair to let those lunches be subsidized by raising costs on parents who do keep their accounts up to date. Also any parent with a delinquent account is welcome to pay daily without catching the entire debt up at once. We are highly motivated to help families who can qualify onto the Free and Reduced Lunch Program. So, if you think you may qualify or for more information, contact us at the Carbon School District Office.

The Alternate Lunch has been a bigger success than we could have hoped and we are so glad that we have this additional offering for our students and their families.