QUESTION: Why is the Alamance-Burlington school system punishing kids by not allowing them to attend an upcoming Valentine’s Day dance, or participate in school sports because their parents haven’t paid their children’s lunch debts?
ANSWER: Some ABSS students may want to bypass the mini corn dogs, “beef dippers,” and pinto beans in the school cafeteria once they find out they won’t be able to attend school functions – such as an upcoming Valentine’s Day dance – until their outstanding lunch debt is paid.
ABSS public information officer Les Atkins confirmed for The Alamance News on Tuesday that the principal at South Mebane Elementary School, Erica Phillips, had notified parents on Friday that any students who had unpaid lunch debt would not be allowed to attend a Valentine’s Day dance scheduled for Friday, February 9.
This revelation has prompted one South Mebane parent, Ashley McKenna, to set up a fundraiser on the GoFundMe website, which had garnered $4,239 in pledged contributions as of mid-afternoon Tuesday.
Atkins told the newspaper that, as of Monday, figures from the ABSS child nutrition department showed that South Mebane Elementary School had a total lunch debt of close to $4,000. [See chart at bottom of story for amounts for each ABSS school.]
However, contrary to the newspaper’s questioner, who said students at Western Middle School had received a similar notice last Friday, Atkins said that South Mebane Elementary School is currently the only school he’s “aware of,” that has notified students that they won’t be allowed to attend the Valentine’s Day dance if they have unpaid lunch debt.
The public information officer also insisted that students who have lunch debt are not prohibited from participating in school sports. “Some schools have said, ‘look, our lunch debt is getting out of hand, so you are not allowed to go to a school dance, you’re not allowed to participate in extracurricular [activities],’” he acknowledged, but said that doesn’t apply to sports.
“I know many schools have done this in the past,” the PIO told the newspaper. “This is nothing new; this is not the first year this has been done. It sounds like it’s punishing the child, but it clears the lunch debt because, at the end of the year, we’re not allowed to carry debt and keep it on the books for student meals.”
“We understand this disappoints the families,” Atkins said, “but we have limited options.”
ABSS has 16 schools that are designated as “CEP,” or “Community Eligible Provision,” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as a result of having high proportions of low-income students, Atkins said. “So students at those schools eat free anyway,” he said, adding that just under half of all ABSS students automatically receive free lunch because their schools are designated as “CEP” schools.
As of Monday, system-wide, ABSS had an outstanding lunch debt of $59,285, Atkins said. That figure reflects the total debt for students whose parents pay for their children to eat breakfast and/or lunch at school.
“Last year, it was over $63,000 in lunch debt that had to be cleared,” the PIO elaborated. “This is nothing new. School nutrition is a self-funded program, not tax dollars. We rely on a combination of federal reimbursements and state reimbursements, and families paying for meals.
“From a district level, we have been encouraging parents to watch their lunch debts,” Atkins added.
ABSS schools that have accumulated debts for school meals have limited options to pay them off: they can work with families to submit applications for free and/or reduced-price lunches, which Atkins says many families have done. In some cases, the school’s Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) holds fundraisers to pay off lunch debt.
“The other thing we’ve been doing is, any child who has a negative balance of more than $10, we send out alerts two times a week to let them know it’s time to put money in the kitty,” Atkins said.
The current charge for a school lunch is $3.10; breakfast is $2 at those schools that offer it, according to the public information officer.
While families that qualify for free and reduced-price meals sometimes avoid applying for the benefit, due to what they see as a stigma, Atkins said that every ABSS student actually receives a “lunch number,” that’s used to track their consumption of school meals.
“It’s all done electronically, and no one knows [whether a student receives a free or reduced lunch],” the PIO elaborated. “We’ve tried everything we can do to remove the stigma.”