Districts adopt strategies to make sure students eat

Jan. 30–Bill Lauff, the food service director at Avonworth School District, keeps a wad of $1 bills in his pocket to lend to high school students who can’t pay for breakfast or lunch.

He keeps a log on his desk to track the debts.

“Right now, my pile is down because I got $14 to $15 out to students,” he said. “They’re usually pretty good at paying me back.”

School districts across the region have adopted policies for feeding students who forgot to bring cash to school, lack the money in their prepaid food accounts or can’t afford to pay for even a reduced-price meal.

Lauff’s stash of $1 bills comes in handy because Avonworth has a policy that cuts off students from buying meals in the cafeteria if they owe more than $5 on their accounts. Cashiers scan students’ cards, which show account balances and indicate whether they are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The cashiers tell students when their accounts run low.

“By the time they get to $5 in the hole, they’ve been told at least four times,” Lauff said. The policy doesn’t apply to youngsters in middle or elementary school.

According to the federally-assisted National School Lunch Program, 30.6 million children ate low-cost or free lunches each school day in 2013, down from a high of 31.8 million in 2010 and 2011. The program operates in more than 100,000 public and private schools and residential child care institutions.

Sto-Rox School District doesn’t charge students who are eligible for reduced-priced meals.

“The more kids who eat, the more money the district gets from its federal reimbursement to cover the students’ share of reduced-price meals,” said Francine Schmid, food service director. The district lures the students with freshly baked reduced-fat cookies, popcorn days and promotions.

Extending credit to students who lack money for meals is a local decision, said Amanda D. Browne, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman. But the department “encourages schools to be flexible in this area, particularly with young children and children with disabilities” who might not take full responsibility for money.

In some cases, PTAs or other school organizations establish funds to pay for lunches for children who forget or lose money, Browne said.

Jennifer Reiser, food service director for Quaker Valley School District, said the Union Aid Society in Sewickley gives the district $500 to pay off the balances for children from 10 needy families each year.

Some parents call the district to restrict what or how much their children can eat, whether they pay full price or get lower-cost or free lunches, she said. The limits are entered into the cash register, and it may flag a taboo item such as ice cream or extra snacks.

Recently, Reiser said, she told an elementary school student that she didn’t have enough money in her account for the snack and drink on her tray.

The girl told her, “But Mom is giving me money tomorrow, and I need a drink for lunch.”

Reiser somewhat relented, allowing the drink but not the snack. She teased the girl that if she didn’t bring the money, “we’ll make you do the dishes,” she said.

Gateway School District has a three-pronged approach to address the problem of hungry students.

First, at the suggestion of the Gateway Ethics Committee, a group that works to address socioeconomic issues that affect academics, Superintendent Nina Zetty asked employees to donate $1.50 a week to help pay students’ shares of reduced-price breakfasts and lunches.

“We felt if we could help a child eat for free, we could help them save the money for other things,” Zetty said.

An anonymous donor gave more than $400 to cover costs for the rest of the school year, and eight employees each pledged $37.

Second, the district started a “sharing table” where students can drop off sealed or packaged items, such as a carton of milk, for other students to eat or drink.

Zetty hopes to start the third idea by the end of February: giving students backpacks with food so they have something to eat over the weekend.

Franklin Regional School District has a similar backpack program.

“I’m just stealing other people’s ideas,” Zetty said.

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