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Groups serve up help with meal debts

Mirror photo by Russ O’Reilly / A cafeteria worker serves lunch to a student at Altoona Area High School.

Cafeteria debt soared over the past three years, but school districts have received some help from private donors to cover the cost of serving lunch to students without money.

At the end of 2019, the Claysburg Education Foundation paid off all students’ outstanding lunch debt, about $1,100.

If Claysburg-Kimmel workers could go back to serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students with delinquent accounts, they wouldn’t.

“You don’t want to be that school that denies a student a hot lunch,” said Claysburg Area Superintendent Darren McLaurin.

Altoona Area’s lunch debt grew from $8,000 to more than $25,000 since 2017 when it was outlawed for districts to serve lower cost “alternative” lunches like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to students without money for lunch.

School district taxpayers are responsible to pay what’s owed to the cafeteria from unpaid lunches, but Altoona Area has also found private donors willing to help pay the cost.

“We have received donations through individuals who wanted to help with those outstanding balances,”Altoona Area spokeswoman Paula Foreman said.

School districts’ outstanding lunch balances could further be diminished if more families applied for the national school lunch program through their school districts.

Through that federal program, all schools in Blair County offer free and reduced-price lunches; schools are later reimbursed by the federal government for the cost.

The 2019 Blair County Community Health Needs Assessment states that 50 percent of Blair County students are enrolled in the free and reduced-price school lunch program compared to the Pennsylvania rate of 46 percent.

Children can qualify for reduced price meals if their family’s income is up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level; they qualify for free meals if their income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

But many children considered food-insecure may not qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Data from FeedingAmerica.org showed, in 2017, about 18 percent of children in Blair County –or 4,749 children — were food-insecure, and 30 percent or about 1,400 of those food-insecure children in Blair County were likely ineligible for federal nutrition programs.

Those children whose family income just barely disqualified them from the national lunch program were the intended beneficiaries of the lunch shaming law in 2017 which outlawed alternative lunches for students with delinquent lunch accounts.

However, cafeteria debt steeply increased as a result.

Senate Republican spokeswoman Jenn Kocher wrote in an email this week that the law was reverted because school districts across the state brought complaints about their cafeteria debt to the Legislature.

“Families who had the ability to pay simply were not,” Kocher stated in an email. “This was leading to tens of thousands of dollars in debt being incurred by the districts.”

A reversal of the 2017 lunch shaming law was passed in June and went into effect in August as Act 16 of 2019. It allowed school districts to again serve alternative lunches to students who don’t qualify for federal free and reduced lunches and who have outstanding lunch balances of $50 in a year until their parents set up a payment plan.

At least that was the intent when the senate passed the change last summer.

However, a memo sent by Pennsylvania Department of Education appears to confirm the state law reversal is null for any district participating in the National Lunch Program, which is a majority of districts.

The Department sent a memo to districts in August that states: “The specific language added by Act 16 of 2019 does not apply to schools that participate in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Programs.”

There are some districts that do not participate in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast programs, but the Department of Education could not provide a list of those districts by the Mirror’s deadline.

The Department’s memo summarized the law and included its interpretation that all students are “eligible” to participate in the national school lunch program by applying for a free or reduced priced lunch, regardless of whether their application is approved for a free or reduced-price lunch.

“Effective August 27, 2019, students who are not eligible for participation in the school food program and who owe greater than $50 for school food program meals in a school year may be served an alternate meal instead of a school food program meal…Per federal regulations, all students in schools that participate in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs are eligible for participation, regardless of their eligibility status of paid, free or reduced. Therefore, the specific language added by Act 16 of 2019 does not apply to schools that participate in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Programs.”

Spring Cove and Hollidaysburg Area officials were among those who took the law change to be nullified by school districts’ general participation in the National Lunch Program. They continue to provide hot lunches to all students and incur debt for those who don’t pay.

“In accordance with the department’s guidance, we continue to provide a school food program meal — not an alternative meal — to each student who does not have the money to pay for their meal or who has a negative balance in his or her meal account,” Spring Cove Superintendent Betsy Baker stated in an email.

That interpretation of the law was not the intention of the senate, according to Kocher.

“We are looking to give schools a tool to prevent those (families) who are able to pay from not paying for school lunches,” Kocher stated in an email.

The perhaps cloudy reversal of the 2017 lunch shaming law was one of 18 amendments addressing a wide range of state issues that the Senate Appropriations Committee attached to the 2019-20 school code bill during the busy state budget season.

Local school districts don’t seem to be bothered by any discrepancy between interpretation and intent of the law. In January, Altoona Area officials were not even aware of the Senate’s effort to reverse the lunch shaming law, district spokeswoman Paula Foreman said.

“As of right now, we are not doing anything differently. Any students with a negative account would still have the lunch options all students would have,” she said.

Other districts noted parents’ cooperation with catching up on their child’s account. Bellwood-Antis Superintendent Tom McInroy said his district no longer has large amounts of money that need to be collected.

“Parents have been working with the district to pay balances,” McInroy said.

For students who have delinquent accounts and even may need food on weekends, Claysburg-Kimmel’s McLaurin said the community has been ready to help.

“Our school social worker does an outstanding job finding programs that our students may be eligible for. We feel we do everything possible to make sure our kids eat,” McLaurin said. “If we ever encounter a student that does not qualify for a free or reduced lunch and still needs help, we have an outstanding support system in our community that wouldn’t hesitate to step up.”

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