2017-05-25 / Front Page

Local Schools Tackle Lunch Debt Issue

By Brooke Constance White

In response to “lunch shaming” situations throughout the state and the nation, the Middletown School Committee is discussing a policy on how to handle lunch debt in a thoughtful way so that all students receive a nutritious meal, while the district is not burdened with unpaid bills.

During its regular meeting on May 18, Supt. Rosemarie Kraeger told the committee that all school districts in the nation must have a policy in place by July 1 as part of the Obama Administration’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. At the moment, the policy is in draft form, as the district seeks input from principals and the Health and Wellness committee.

Kraeger said that the policy will make sure a child never goes without lunch. “We need to have protocols in place,” she said. “There’s a struggle between the heart and knowing that we have significant unpaid charges that we have to reconcile.”

Business Manager Raquel Pellerin said that the lunch debt from the district’s five schools is about $15,000. The debt falls on the district, not on the food service company, Chartwells.

Some students have carried debt for a while, and the district is trying to pin down why their bills haven’t been paid. Parents can either put money in the student's account to purchase lunch, or students can charge lunch to their accounts, similar to a credit card that’s paid later.

“We’ve never stopped a student from having a lunch or alternative lunch,” Pellerin said. “We certainly don’t want to penalize anyone until we know the circumstances around it. We are trying to open up communications with the family to find out why the bill isn’t being paid.”

One reason could be that students who became eligible for free and reduced lunch due to changing circumstances since the beginning of the school year have not notified the school, said Committee Chair Kellie DiPalma Simeone.

Several committee members said that districts throughout the state have been criticized for providing students who have debt with only a cheese sandwich, which could single them out among their peers and embarrass them. Pellerin said Middletown schools have always offered something more substantial and nutritious than a cheese sandwich.

Committee Vice Chair Theresa Spengler said that students won’t be productive in class if they don’t have something more substantial for lunch. She added that the alternative lunch shouldn’t be something that singles students out. She suggested that a granola bar, a yogurt and a piece of fruit was a possible solution.

Once the committee receives feedback from other subcommittees, principals and teachers, it will revisit the topic in order to have a policy in place by the end of June.

In other news…

The committee recognized a group of students for their admission as Pop Warner All-American Scholars. The group also honored the R.I. Foreign Language Association Student of the Year and the winners of the American Association of teachers of Spanish and Portuguese Comic Strip contest.

The committee voted to review a draft policy about having Naloxone, a medication to treat opioid overdoses, in school buildings. Kraeger said it’s now required by law for each district to have a policy.

Kraeger told the committee she is notifying nine teachers that their contracts will not be renewed for the next school year. According to state law, she must notify them by June 1. She said that she hopes to rescind as many as possible, depending on how much funding they receive when the budget is approved.

The committee also voted to allow the district’s facilities director to establish a team that will look at where synergies between the school department and other town departments can potentially save money and resources.

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