Soda Creek Elementary School third-graders Alex Eakins, lower right, and Zinedin Bautista eat lunch Tuesday at the school.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Soda Creek Elementary School third-graders Alex Eakins, lower right, and Zinedin Bautista eat lunch Tuesday at the school.

Lunch policy pays off

School district's move to refuse hot meals brings in overdue payments



Soda Creek Elementary School third-grader Wes Armbruster picks up a hot lunch Tuesday.


Soda Creek Elementary School students load their trays with food during lunch Tuesday.

— In the first week of a new school lunch program preventing students from charging on overdue accounts, the amount of meal fees owed to the Steamboat Springs School District decreased from $10,000 to $2,800.

By Superintendent Shalee Cunningham's calculations, that makes the program a success.

"I think we did what we needed to," Cunningham said. "I certainly don't feel that anyone went hungry. We made sure they all ate."

Even so, some students will remain on a regimen of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until all overdue fees are paid.

The new policy attracted nationwide attention when the district did not serve hot lunches to students with lunch accounts owing $6 or more, the equivalent of two lunches. On the first day back from the holiday break, Jan. 5, Steamboat Springs elementary school students who did not have the funds were given a pack of sunflower seeds and snacks, while middle school and high school students were cut off from any school food.

Since that time, elementary students have been given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich each day if their account is overdrawn.

Nutritional Services Director Max Huppert said he was happy with the results. By Tuesday - a week after the program took effect - the number of overdue accounts in the district had declined from about 500 to a little more than 100, and most of those are at the middle school or high school, he said.

"A lot of debts of $25 or more have been paid off," he said. But several debts of $100 or more remain.

School secretaries, beginning weeks before the holiday break, sent home letters with students and called parents whose students would be unable to eat when the new policy took effect.

Students on the free lunch program were not affected by the changes, but students on reduced lunch fees were limited to three overdue meals.

Parents with overdue accounts also were told about the free and reduced lunch options and urged to submit the forms if they qualify. About five parents signed up since the policy took effect, Huppert said.

Huppert said food service staff in school cafeterias moved the cashier's station, where students use a personal identification number to access their account, to the front of the serving line to ensure students received the appropriate meal. Food was never taken away from students, he said.

Unhappy customers

Not all students are happy with how they were treated after the policy took effect.

Riley Toye, a fourth-grader at Soda Creek Elementary School, organized a petition of 29 classmates protesting how students were treated when they were refused food the first day.

Riley's letter, dated Jan. 7 and published on page 8 of today's newspaper, states that she doesn't think it is right that students were refused hot lunches. Riley said she has been bringing in bagged lunches for students whose accounts are overdrawn.

Huppert said it was one day with just snacks and without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but elementary students have been provided with sandwiches since that day.

Riley's father, Stace Toye, said he was unhappy with how the district communicated the students' lunch balance.

"I know they said there was all this effort to let people know, but we didn't know anything," he said.

He said the family got a call 45 minutes before Riley's lunch on the first day of the new policy, but they were unable to get to the school in time to pay off her account. Riley got a bag of seeds that day and has been taking her own lunch since.

Soda Creek secretary Tammy Farrell has made hundreds of calls to parents during the past week. She said she doesn't expect at least one overdue account to be paid for some time.

Farrell said one student's mother would pack lunches for him to bring to school, but when faced with the options presented in the cafeteria, he often would choose to charge a meal instead. His mother did not know the account was being overdrawn until Farrell began mailing overdue notices to the family.

The student now has $57 in overdue charges, and Farrell said the mom has figured out a way to teach the student a lesson in the process of paying off the amount.

"Now I'm waiting for this little guy to do enough chores to make it up," she said.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 4 months ago

Another way to read this is incompetence and covering up for your own.

Exactly how was someone able to run up a negative balance of $57 when now lunch is denied to those with a negative balance of more than $6?

Were they not following existing policy? Or did they issue credit cards to kids as young as 6 and not have a policy regarding negative balances and so rushed a new policy into place?

It was obviously a mistake if the cut off is now $6 to have previously allowed someone to owe $57.

And if they think it was okay that first day to give kids kids denied food sun flower seeds for lunch then why are they now offering peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

Parents and students hope for truth from the schools. As long as they say they handled this well and that it was the right thing to do then they demonstrate there is a real problem with food services and the superintendent because their current actions and policies show that they know things were wrong before and yet their words say everything is fine.

So another lesson for the school kids - actions are more important than words and that is what you should expect from your superintendent and food services.


LLM 8 years, 4 months ago

Shall we apply these same principals to our other government spending habits? Should we cut spending until balances reach $0? Cut social security benefits. Cut medicare benefits. No more unemployment, workman's injury compensation, or disability payments. No stimulus package, no pensions. Cut the road funds and the parks funds. No more military spending, no more natural disaster relief, no more arts funding. What about our nursing homes? The cost of the care far exceeds what the individuals pay. If medicare is two days late with the payment to the old folks home, shall we kick the old folks out on the street until the payment is received?


arnonep 8 years, 4 months ago

Do you really think any of these kids's health or welfare was endangered?


confused 8 years, 4 months ago

arnonrp - I don't think that is the point. The point is - the schools were letting these charges occur and not doing much on the monitoring side of things - then all of a sudden they decide it is time to collect and the kids had to go without because the school district finally decided to pay attention. The whole story is not being reported by the paper.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 4 months ago

It is good that the kids now get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if they have a negative balance.

I am not sure if that was an option the first day and they simply ran out or if they were unprepared for kids expecting food despite having a negative balance. Regardless, it is clear from numerous sources that some elementary school kids had no lunch that first day. That is not acceptable. Their first priority has to be feeding the little kids. If they ran out of PB&J sandwiches then they should have allowed kids to charge one more hot meal.

If the superintendent and food services want to argue that collecting money is more important than feeding lunch to little kids then one day's mistake becomes a much bigger problem.

If they truly think that any definition of success involves surprising elementary school kids by denying them a lunch then there is a very large problem.

The fact that so many kids were surprised when denied a hot lunch leads to the obvious conclusion that efforts to contact and inform parents was not sufficient. There appears to be a deeper lesson here that sending notes home with the kids does not reach a significant number of parents. Or that parent's think that those notes are talking about other kids or whatever. The inescapable fact is that it did not work that well.

Clearly, there were numerous errors.

Superintendent and food services: please promise that elementary school kids will always be able to get a lunch. Period.

Make that promise and I'll be satisfied.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 4 months ago

They could sell peanut butter and jelly for $1 and allow that to be charged to unpaid accounts. And if they are out of PBJ sandwiches then allow charging a $3 hot lunch. And if the unpaid balance keeps growing then keep increasing the urgency of talking to the parents which could ultimately involve going to their home.

The important thing is to be sure little kids get their lunch.


popcan 8 years, 4 months ago

Just make sure as always in our Happy Country ... Punish any taxpayer's child that has overdue charges. Take away their lunch. Please don't take away Free lunches from subsidy and make sure illegal alien kids can still eat for free.


sunflowergirl9999 8 years, 4 months ago

Unbelievable that I haven't read anything about the parents not keeping track. I can see a lunch lady looking at a 6 year old kid with no money (because their parent didn't take care of them) and give them a lunch. I am sure she said, "Make sure you pay it tomorrow" Then, of course as a 6 year old does, forgets. It is not their responsibility to remember to give themselves money. Parents are at fault here. Yes the school turned their head for a while to FEED KIDS whose PARENTS FORGOT. YES?


arnonep 8 years, 4 months ago

confused, It is exactly the point. You all seem to think looking down your nose at the school and not the parents is the issue. The parents should have never been allowed to take advantage of the school in the first place. The school had to draw the line in the sand eventually. Let's put the blame where it belongs, on the slacker parents. Offering free PB&J is a bunch of crap. The remaining slacker parents need to be called out. Feeding their kids for free is just prolonging the situation.

Scott, They are feeding, for free, the kids whose parents still have not paid. What else do you want?


howard_roark 8 years, 4 months ago

I applaud the schools for doing exactly what they are supposed to do ... teach. These children and their families learned a fine lesson in economics. There truly is no such thing as a free lunch.

Now maybe someone could inform LLM that this truth extends to all levels. If the U.S. government continues to spend beyond its means it will have to answer a force far more cruel than SSSD employees. Unfortunately, I don't believe foreign bond holders are gonna offer us any PBJ.


Scott Wedel 8 years, 4 months ago

Amonep, What else I want is a statement that they will feed lunches to the little kids.

I know they are doing that now. That first day they left kids without a lunch. They have not admitted that was a mistake. Thus, they could just as easily decide that next week that they will once again not give lunches to kids with negative balances.


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