KOLD INVESTIGATES: School lunch debt causing problems for southern Arizona’s biggest district

KOLD INVESTIGATES: School lunch debt

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD News 13) - No one wants a child to go hungry, especially the food services teams working in school districts across the country.

The fallout from viral headlines of school lunch shaming has left these dietitians, cooks and cafeteria workers with limited options on how to keep everyone fed without going over budget.

"You don't want to take food away from a child," said Lindsay Aguilar, RD, SNS, and Administrative Dietitian-Coordinator for Food Services at Tucson Unified School District.

Walking through the district’s warehouse of food, Aguilar explained a six-figure challenge facing TUSD.

Students with a negative balance beyond two meals on their accounts used to receive a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The courtesy meal program was designed to make sure every child was fed, according to Aguilar.

Around the time outrage over anecdotal reports of students stamped because of a lunch debt or children forced to wash dishes to work off their account balance, TUSD ended its courtesy meal program.

“Even the peanut butter and jelly became kind of an awkward moment for all parties involved,” Aguilar said.

Now, that budget-friendly childhood classic could fall short of guidelines from the National School Lunch Program.

The NSLP sets the standards for food and nutrition service across the country. Current regulations allow for alternative meals for students with negative account balances, but what’s provided still needs to meet the same nutritional standards a regular meal would.

That’s what staff at Amphitheater Public Schools do when a student’s owes more than $20. If a student still has an outstanding balance by the end of their senior year, participation in graduation could be limited.

KOLD News 13 reached out to Amphi for clarification on the policy, but we have not heard back.

The policy for Tucson Unified School District is to provide everyone with a meal, unless a parent or guardian notifies the school not to feed the student. Families are notified via automated systems when a student’s account is low, out of money and once it’s in the red.

Some families might be in the middle of financial troubles and unable to pay an entire debt at once. Aguilar said payment plans are always an option and any family not currently part of the free or reduced meal program is reminded of the application process.

"We certainly want to assist families in hardship," she said.

If an account hasn't been settled by the end of the school year, the district pays for it. The following is a snapshot of several districts in Pima County:

Flowing Wells School District

A statement from the district stated FWUSD uses non-federal dollars to offset this cost.

  • 2017-18 School Year: $1,792.
  • 2016-17 School Year: $1,630.

Sunnyside Unified School District

A spokesperson for the district shared the following statement: “Per ADE guidelines, Sunnyside covers the remaining debt using non-federal funds through other revenue sources such as District cafeteria income, catering, and other non-federally reimbursed meals served.”

  • 2017-18 School Year: $3,760.
  • 2017-18 School Year: $3,581.

Vail School District

Vail said the yearly balance is cumulative. The current negative balance is less than half of the $54,116.20 balance from the 2015 - 2016 school year. Administrators credit several factors for the decrease, like improved customer service, making debit/credit card payments possible and adding “family” accounts.

  • 2017-18 School Year: $22,117.
  • 2016-17 School Year: $25,557.

Marana Unified School District

Food service staff at Marana use automated notifications to keep families aware of a student’s account balance. “The Marana Unified School District Food Service is committed to student health and nutrition and to maintaining a responsible financial approach."

  • 2017-18 School Year: $30,195.
  • 2016-17 School Year: $34,240.

Amphitheater Public Schools

This district’s policy to explain the reduced negative balance was explained earlier in this story.

  • 2017-18 School Year: $12,400.
  • 2016-17 School Year: $55,269.

Tucson Unified School District

  • 2017-18 School Year: $294,465.
  • 2016-17 School Year: $218,001.

TUSD, southern Arizona’s largest school district by a long shot, also had the largest lunch debt.

More than 4,000 accounts were unpaid by the end of the 2017-18 school year. That total is on pace to be more than 6,000 this year school.

Mark Stegeman, President of the TUSD Governing Board, said he was unaware of the expense.

“That level of financial loss is alarming,” he said.

Stegeman clarified that staff may have presented the issue to the board at some point, but he could not recall it. TUSD used auxiliary funds, the district’s rainy day money, to pay off last school year’s debt.

That doesn’t make the lunch tab any easier to digest. The governing board leader listed several areas that could benefit from that money like teachers, counselors or libraries.

“Any money that is spent on this, is money we cannot spend on something else,” he said.

The debt may be larger than anywhere locally, but districts nationwide are in similar situations. Aguilar said news of the issue might lead to some abuse of the system, but it could also generate enough discussion to find a solution and awareness to boost donations.

“We’re being asked to address it but there’s no funding attached to it" Aguilar said. “It really puts schools and food service operators in a tough situation.”

School administrators receive cash or check donations for lunch debt, usually from community members with a particular connection to a school, according to Aguilar.

Last year, TUSD accepted $6,713 in donations directly to schools.

In an effort to streamline generosity, Aguilar’s team created an online portal to accept donations. Individual schools are not equipped to process credit card payments, so Together Every Kid Eats offered another option for donors.

The program collected $606 last year. In that same time, Wheeler Elementary received $750 in direct donations.

Stegeman had not heard of Together Every Kid Eats, but he doubts the donations would be much higher even if the program were more well known. School lunch debt donations are tax deductible but they do not qualify for the AZ State Tax Credit program.

Stegeman said he wants more information on this predicament and some possible solutions to lessen the blow to the budget. What will likely be half a million dollars in two school years, Stegeman said the district needs to be accountable.

"We do have areas where we are not as efficient as we should be," he said. "This might turn out to be one of those areas."

A school lunch shaming bill didn’t make it through the Arizona State Legislature. Aguilar holds out hope that any more oversight from the state or feds will come with some sort of financial support. She said she worries if school districts can keep this up long term.

“For a district to have a program where we’re ensuring children are fed but it has to be paid for either one form or another the sustainability of it is definitely a concern" she said. “But we’re also concerned with ensuring the children have a meal.”

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