Our View: Lunch money lessons

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Editorial Board, February 2009 through May 2009

  • Suzanne Schlicht, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Mike Lawrence, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Paul Hughes, community representative
  • Gail Smith, community representative

Contact the editorial board at (970) 871-4221 or editor@steamboatpilot.com. Would you like to be a member of the board? Fill out a letter of interest now.

The Steamboat Springs School District made an appropriate, justifiable decision last week to withhold hot lunches from students with unpaid balances on their meal accounts.

While the decision sparked an outcry from some local parents and coverage from media outlets across the state, a knee-jerk reaction of anger toward the school district is not warranted.

This is no Dickensian tale of a hungry Oliver Twist pleading for another bowl of gruel at the orphanage. District officials say every elementary school student with an unpaid account was, and will continue to be, provided with food during their school day. Although the same is not true for middle and high school students, those students are old enough to understand the responsibility of meal costs and manage their eating habits.

This actually is a story of parents simply not keeping up with their children's accounts.

Nutritional Services Director Max Huppert said that when food services staff began withholding hot lunches Jan. 5, the school district was facing about $10,000 in unpaid lunch fees on a total of about 500 accounts. During the past week, those numbers have dropped to about $2,800 in unpaid fees on about 100 accounts, primarily at Steamboat Springs Middle School and Steamboat Springs High School. At Steamboat's two public elementary schools, Huppert said, only a handful of students remain with unpaid accounts.

Soda Creek Elementary School office staff - who have called every local family with an unpaid account at the school - said that despite the number of unpaid accounts, there has not been an increase in requests for free or reduced-cost lunches as families bring their accounts up to speed. Huppert said there have been only a few such requests overall.

The speed with which overdue accounts have been paid and the lack of requests for reduced-cost meals indicate that the vast number of unpaid meal accounts was not because of an inability to pay but because of parents forgetting to pay.

We understand that busy parents can forget things. Every parent has a wealth of bills to pay and things to do - and not enough hours in the day to accomplish it all. But school district staff made every reasonable effort to contact parents with unpaid accounts, well before hot meals began to be withheld last week.

In December, food services staff sent letters to parents of elementary school students with unpaid accounts. Middle school and high school students, Huppert said, were told about their meal account status while receiving lunch during the three weeks leading up to the holiday break.

Ultimately, parents are responsible for making sure students have a good lunch every day. To make sure their child can receive hot lunches at school, parents can create and add to an account on the Web at www.steamboatschoolfood.com. The site also allows parents to monitor their child's food purchases.

Parents also can hand a check to elementary school office staff or food services staff at the middle school or high school.

Huppert and office staff said the vast majority of their interactions with parents who have unpaid accounts have been positive. Local families have been appreciative of the notification and eager to update their accounts.

Perhaps the greatest lesson from the recent school lunch hubbub will be learned by the children themselves, who got a quick lesson on the value of a dollar and paying bills promptly.

That's a valuable life lesson for all, and, in this case, it is appropriate that it came from the school of hard knocks.

Comments

Scott Wedel 5 years, 11 months ago

This was ineptly handled by the school food services dept. The credit card very quickly became a debit card and that change obviously caught many families by surprise. My child was not denied lunch, but it is very easy to see how other parents and kids were surprised to get no lunch that day.

The students are given a credit card. It is not immediately obvious to parents whether or not their child has used the card. Thus, it was entirely possible to have a negative balance without the parent's knowledge. It is not like a subway ticket which has the current balance printed on it. From conversations among other first grade parents, there appears to have been unapproved charges. Of kids buying lunches when they had a bag lunch so the idea of a kid's lunch money being scammed has not gone away and, if anything, the credit card allowed it to go on for longer than would have happened had lunch money been involved.

And the note sent home with students was poorly written. It did not make it clear whether there was a general problem with negative balances or if it was included because your child had a negative balance. Nor did it clearly state the new policy that as of a particular date that food was not going to be served to kids with a negative balance of $6.50 or more. Earlier I didn't find out my child had been using her card until it had a negative balance of more than $20.

It was simply wrong for any kid to be surprised that they will not be getting lunch that day. That clearly happened at the elementary school.

This is not that big of a deal except that the people in charge say that nothing wrong happened. One thing expected from a school is learning. It defies common sense to suggest this was handled well and that it will be handled the same next year as well (allowing negative balances until one day in January when kids are denied lunch).

It defies common sense to think that elementary school kids, especially first and second graders, had any idea of how much was owed and whether or not their parents had paid this bill on time.

The lesson experienced by the youngest was that money is all that matters. That people that are supposed to care about you, that you think they care about you, that all they care about is money. If the lesson: was "don't be fooled into thinking the people that you pay for stuff are actually your friends" then that lesson was unforgettably taught. from high school all the way to first grade.

At the high school that lesson should not have been a surprise. For first graders, that lesson was a shock.

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Sheryl Uhlmann 5 years, 11 months ago

This was handled horribly by the school district. As far as I know, no letters were sent home to families who didn't owe money already. The only announcements were on the website, which many people don't use, and to families who already owed money. There was no prior warning to the rest of us that our kids might not be fed. We learned about it in the paper.

It's ridicuous to punish elementary school students because junior high and high school parents have fallen behind paying for their children's lunches. It absurd to think that a first or second grader is going to know their current balance or to make them responsible for explaining previously unannounced new school policies to their parents.

Your editorial fails to mention that the website charges a user fee each time you put money on a child's account. Touting the online payment program as the easy and efficient cure all for solving the non-payment issue ignores the fact that some people are unable or unwilling to pay the fees associated with it.

Regardless of whether the school district's decision to withhold lunches from kids is right or wrong, they are responsible for our kids. They have a duty to communicate with us clearly and an obligation to ask for input before punishing kids for things they have no control over. They didn't do that here.

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arnonep 5 years, 11 months ago

Do you really think any of these kids's health or welfare was endangered? Well written, Pilot!

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JustSomeJoe 5 years, 11 months ago

Sheryl - Letters were sent home and calls were made. Kids did not go hungry. I've talked to two adults who were in the cafeteria that Monday, and plenty of food was available just not the hot lunch of the day. Those pre-wrapped PB&J sandwiches were available to any kid who didn't get a hot lunch, and many were handed out.

What we have are parents that just didn't pay attention, unlike the other 98% of the parents who were able to manage the process. Sure there are exceptions, but the majority of the balances were parents that procrastinated in paying for school lunches or didn't manage/pay attention to their balances being drawn down. Why do I think that? 80% of the outstanding balance was paid down within a day or two.

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Gaylan Hellyer 5 years, 11 months ago

Notices were sent home. I got one at the teacher conferences and another before the break.

And the online option charges $1.75 per transaction. So I can deposit money for three kids for a month or more and pay a total service fee of $1.75. Also you can sign up to receive an email alert when the balance is low and send a check/cash to school with our child instead of paying online. In addition, you can monitor when and how much they are charging. It is free to sign up. I know at the elementary level they can only charge one lunch per day/per account and when they punch in their account number the name and picture pop up on the screen to be verified by the "lunch lady". This system has been in place since last year. It works and is a great reminder for those of us who have busy schedules.

MyNutriKids.com

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Gaylan Hellyer 5 years, 11 months ago

So Sheryl, Letters were sent to everyone and calls were made. And the website is free to use and check balances. A service fee of $1.75 will apply when you pay online. When I am putting in $225.00 at a time for 3 kids I don't mind the extra $1.75 knowing the money is in the account and not lost in the bottom of a backpack somewhere forgotten. And when the accounts get low, they send me an email reminding me to deposit more money. MyNutriKids.com

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Carrie Requist 5 years, 11 months ago

The food is SO much better this year than it has been. My children never used to buy hot lunches because they didn't like the taste. Now, they buy about half the time and bring from home the other half. The bread is made from scratch. The meat is real (not preformed with added grill marks, but real chicken breasts for example). There are ingredients like fennel. In addition to the hot lunch for the day, there is a salad bar with fresh fruit and veggies and there is a deli bar if the child does not like/want the hot selection. And the meals (at least at the elementary) are more interesting and varied then I have ever seen them. This week alone has Moroccan Chicken Couscous, Pork Fried Brown Rice and Penne Pasta Bar among the meals. Last week, there were Gyros.

My children tried them this year becuase chef Max had sushi one day early on and they love sushi and that is what got them to even look at the hot lunches again.

I have joined them for lunch to see for myself ($3.25 for adults) and was pleasantly surprised at the quality.

As for the payment system - the online system does work quite well, but I am also a computer person and comfortable with online systems. For parents who are not, they don't have to charge, they can send money everyday or send a check for the child's account. We did receive notices at conference and again the last week of school that the district would be cracking down on negative balances and that children with negative balances would not be allowed to charge hot lunch.

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popcan 5 years, 11 months ago

I do not think it is fair to take away any child's lunch when a school district offers reduced or free meals to some students. Maybe all students should pay for their lunches at a reduced rate. If I were a student and saw another student getting a free lunch and I couldn't get a lunch due to my parent's bill paying habits, I would be upset.

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sunflowergirl9999 5 years, 11 months ago

Really Popcan?? The free lunch and reduced lunch program are for familes who have verified they don't make enough money to pay. They are poor and can't pay. They don't have parents that forget. Let's put this on parents forgetting and not blame the poor families or other kids "who see a friend getting a free lunch". Really??? Do I even have to write this?

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popcan 5 years, 11 months ago

I don't think it quite works that way sunflowergirl. Do you think the school system really verifies that children getting free lunches really qualify and are indeed poor? I can think of several situations where subsidy is taken advantage of. There are people out their that know how to screw the system every day. Food stamps and all that stuff ... fraud is the way of survival. It is the taxpayer working man Joe who's children are getting the door closed on them.

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stillinsteamboat 5 years, 11 months ago

It's so true popcan, I know of someone who can well afford to pay but she signs up for the free lunch for her kids every year.

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David Carrick 5 years, 11 months ago

popcan and stillinsteamboat: it is not as easy as "she signs up for the free lunch for her kids." There really are guidelines, income based, and your records must substantiate it. If you qualify, you get in; if you don't meet the qualifications, you don't.

Pay REAL attention to your kids, their schooling, and what is going on in their lives...you'll be amazed at what challenges you can avoid, and how much all of these areas will improve!

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stillinsteamboat 5 years, 11 months ago

Scumbag that I am, I do pay very close attention to my kids and their education. I also believe in showing teachers how much I value them.

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