Five Questions for: Mary Swift

FoodService Director - Five Questions - Mary Swift - Albuquerque Schools - charge policyEarlier this year, the Albuquerque Public Schools' foodservice department received a lot of press from both local and national media outlets about a change to the district's meal charge policy-the amount of unpaid debt for school meals was $140,000. The district's new policy brought about some negative press for the foodservice department. Mary Swift, director of food and nutrition services, talks about why the change was made, how she dealt with the media and whether the department has recouped some of the debt.

1.    What changes were made to your charge policy?

We did not have a charging policy. There was no limit to the number of charges a student could make. The policy now is that elementary students can charge 10 meals, middle school students can charge five meals and high school students can charge two meals. After that the student is given a courtesy meal, which consists of a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk.

2.    Why were those changes necessary?

The number of unpaid meal charges at the end of the school year kept growing and was becoming a detriment to the food and nutrition and district budgets. With no consequences for parents not paying their charges, some of them who would have qualified for free or reduced meals were not bothering to fill out the applications since their students could charge and eat anyway.    

3.    The department received a lot of attention after the change went into effect, and not all of it supported the policy. How did you deal with the negative attention from both the media and parents?

We stated by explaining our reasons for implementing the policy, how the policy was being implemented and the success of the policy. A board member and I met with the editors of the Albuquerque Journal and explained the prior points. After they had a better understanding of the policy they were supportive, and one purchased a courtesy meal and was video taped eating the meal and commenting on the taste, amount, etc. The video was posted on their Web site and an article was written. Her piece was supportive and I think helped to counter what negative local media there was. We had very few complaints from parents. Our district customer service desk received no negative calls about the policy from parents, and within our department we received only a handful of calls from parents of APS students. Most negative comments were from people in other cities and from a local community foundation hunger advocacy group. We did spend a great deal of time meeting with this group to explain why and how the policy was running. They were unmovable and insisted that the only a complete discontinuation of the policy would satisfy them.

4.    What has happened to the amount of unpaid charges since implementing the new policy?

It has dropped drastically. When we started the policy, we had $140,000 in unpaid charges that had accrued from August through December. We will start this school year with around $35,000 in past charges that were not paid over the summer. Not all of the $105,000 was paid by parents. Some of the charges were paid through other sources-none of which was the community foundation that so vehemently opposed us.

5.    Albuquerque is not the only district with this problem. The School Nutrition Association reported last year that 52% of directors said that their unpaid charges were increasing. What advice do you have for those directors who are thinking about making a change to their charge policies?

1.  Get support from district and school administration. This step is essential to implement a successful policy.

2. Take the time to go through all the necessary steps in your district to get policies created or changed.

3. Make it a formal policy that is voted on by the board. That will make it harder for them to rescind when community groups start complaining.

4. Communicate to parents. I don't think this can be overdone. Tell them why the policy was started, when it starts and how it will affect them. Inform the local media before the policy is implemented so they can help get the message out to the parents. This also helps to minimize negative media coverage after implementation because they have already reported that it is going to happen.

5.  Train staff who will be implementing the policy at the school level with role playing, frequently asked questions and flow charts. You cannot over train.

6.  Keep administration and the board informed of all the steps to inform parents and progress being made. It is important to keep them involved so they feel ownership of the policy. This entire process takes time; be patient but persistent.