Members of District 65’s Finance Committee held a lengthy discussion about the District’s reduced-fee lunch program at their Aug. 24 meeting. The discussion focused on how parents are notified that their children’s lunch accounts are low or in a deficit position, and the stigma associated with a student’s being served a “complimentary lunch.”

Kate Mason-Schultz, Nutrition Service Coordinator, said that as of April 30, District 65 had 2,941 students who qualified for free lunch, 294 who qualified for a reduced-fee lunch, and 4,868 who did not qualify for either.  

Based on this data, 36.3% of the District’s students qualify for free lunch, meaning they are from families earning below 130% of the federal poverty line. Another 3.6% qualify for reduced-fee lunch, meaning they are families earning between 130% and 180% of the poverty line.

Students who qualify receive a free lunch every school day. Those who qualify for a reduced-fee lunch must contribute a portion of the cost of the lunch. Other students pay the full cost. The costs are charged against a student’s account.

When a student’s account lacks adequate funds for a lunch, Ms. Mason-Schultz said, the students are “loaned” the amount, and given a “loan lunch,” but only for a maximum of two times, until their account is brought current. After a student is given two loan lunches, a student is given what is called a “complimentary lunch,” consisting of a soy butter and jelly sandwich and milk, in lieu of the regular lunch.

This limits the debit balance in an account to the cost of two lunches.

Last school year, the District served 5,498 complimentary lunches to students, said Ms. Mason-Schultz. Of those, 1,116 were provided to students on the reduced-fee lunch program, and 4,382 to students on the full-pay lunch. An estimate of District 65’s total cost to provide these complimentary lunches is about $3,894.

Finance Committee Chair Candance Chow said, “This past year there were a number of families who had overdue balances, and there was a huge effort across the community to raise funds to remove the balances so there was no unpaid balance for students and families.

“When this was underway, there was a discussion about how could we do a better job in terms of our process, our communication of the balances, so students were not getting caught in the middle of that dialogue, and also about what meals were provided.”

Board member Lindsay Cohen said, “I’m concerned there’s a lot of families right at that margin who didn’t qualify for reduced-fee lunch and who can’t afford to pay their balances, so every time they get a notice in their student’s backpack it’s causing them a lot of distress, versus other families who just forgot to put money in their kid’s account. I want to be sure we have a policy in place that works for all of these students.”

Ms. Cohen said the District should consider offering the same lunch to kids, whether or not they have money in their account to pay for it. She said it is “a significant and emotional hit to kids to be offered a complimentary lunch under the counter rather than a regular lunch.”

She brought out that the incremental cost to the District of providing a complimentary lunch rather than a regular lunch is about $1.05 per lunch, and  assuming the District provided 5,498 regular lunches to students instead of complimentary lunches, the total incremental cost would be about $5,772.  

Board member Anya Tanyavutti said the added cost is “not unreasonable, given the social and emotional experience kids have. Getting a complimentary lunch demonstrates to everyone the financial state of your family.”

She also asked if there is a way to communicate more effectively with parents about the balance in their students’ accounts

Ms. Mason-Schultz said they have brainstormed about how to provide the complimentary lunches “a little more discreetly.” But, she noted when kids sit at the table with friends to eat their complimentary lunch, everyone sees it.

District Superintendent Paul Goren said administrators would consider ways to more effectively communicate with parents, and consider costs and the most feasible approach in serving lunches.  

Ms. Chow summed up that the Committee would like to see more effective ways of communicating with parents without getting students in the middle. She also said “What’s the best way to mitigate the stigma” of providing students a complimentary lunch.