School lunches and lunchroom policies have been in the national discussion for many years and lately have focused on so-called “lunch shaming,” but at Kilgore ISD the top priorities continue to be feeding all students a nutritious meal and improving communication with parents.
“We want them to have a good healthy meal, breakfast and lunch, every day,” KISD Superintendent Cara Cooke said. “That’s what we want for them, but there is cost that’s incurred with that, and the responsibility of the parents to be partners with us in that.”
For example, KISD Chief Financial Officer Revard Pfeffer said, meals given to students who incur a negative balance that remains unpaid must be paid for by the district out of the general fund. The same is true with the courtesy meals KISD offers students who reach the maximum negative balance allowed per student – $17.50 for elementary school students and $18.75 for middle and high school students.
By federal law, he said, the federally-funded cafeteria program cannot be used to pay for courtesy meals.
Courtesy meals are different across the country, though, and KISD’s offering includes a SunButter – a peanut butter alternative made from sunflower seeds and provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – and jelly sandwich with a side of fruit and water.
The courtesy meals are a last-case scenario, though.
The district contacts parents when their student’s account shows a negative balance. Once it hits the maximum threshold, the district lets parents know and gives them five days – a full school week – before their student begins receiving a courtesy meal. The account, though, does not have to be paid in full at that time, KISD Food Services Director Jennie Hammerbacher said. Instead, they can call her office and make other arrangements.
“There’s ample opportunities for the parents to not allow it to get to that point to even have a courtesy meal,” Cooke said. “If they’ve hit a rough spot and have difficulties, just contact the food service department, make arrangements and we never miss a beat. This only happens when there’s no contact made, there’s no arrangements made and it just seems like they’re not taking the responsibility of ensuring that their child’s meals are paid for.”
One of the district’s goals in its handling of courtesy meals is to make it the opposite of lunch shaming. If a student receives a courtesy meal, their hope, Hammerbacher said, is that no one else in the cafeteria even notices.
“We don’t take trays away,” she said. “We just exchange for the sandwich and put the sandwich on there, so we don’t take the whole tray and give them a brown bag or anything. They’re still carrying a tray of food.”
This is different from an example in St. Louis in which a student owed $2.20 and was given a cold cheese sandwich the lactose intolerant student could not eat or an unidentified example highlighted by CNN where students are made to wear stickers, wristbands or something to signify their lunch debt, even if it was just the cost of one lunch.
For some families, the easiest solution to help prevent a negative balance is to fill out an application to participate in the free and reduced lunch program in which students receive breakfast and lunch either free or for $0.30 and $0.40, respectively, depending on the family’s income.
Parents can fill out the form to see if they qualify at any point in the school year if a family’s circumstances change for any reason.
“They won’t miss a beat there either… It’s not an all or nothing because we’re here for the kids, and it breaks the hearts of anyone that’s standing on the line in the cafeteria to have to give them a courtesy meal,” Cooke said.
During the summer, Hammerbacher and Pfeffer said, they hope to offer prize or raffle tickets to students who turn in a free and reduced lunch application.
“If you want to win a bicycle or whatever it might be, it doesn’t matter your income. You fill it out, even [if] you don’t qualify, you can still fill it out,” Pfeffer said.
Representatives from the food services department and other departments will be available to answer any questions during the district’s One-Stop Registration this summer.
As she looks to the future of the KISD food services department, Hammerbacher said, she is also working on bringing more fresh local fruits and vegetables to the students’ meals.
“I believe [students] should have the best food possible, period,” she said. “Some of them can’t afford it, so they should at least get it somewhere. They should get it here. We’re still working a lot of that, but again with the budget, we have to be mindful of the funds that we are given and work within those funds. I’m working more toward more of my dreams for this department.”
The immediate next step is to offer fruit during breakfast each day.
“We were not offering fresh fruit with breakfast, but we will this next year,” Hammerbacher said. “We’ve started purchasing a lot of local – like local, Henderson local – so we’re working on a lot of those ends too, supporting the local economies and still providing these wonderful fruits and vegetables that are super fresh to the students… We’re still kind of finding more opportunities like that. The students are worth it and they deserve it.”
KISD administrators also are investigating how they can improve their policies and operations to help families with more details becoming available closer to the start of the school year.