(Seguin) -- The issue of "lunch shamming" has come to light in the Seguin ISD. Due to questions and concerns raised by some of those in the community and by new administrative officials, the district discussed the issue of its current lunch line policy during Tuesday's school board meeting.
The discussion is said to have been prompted by not only current Texas Legislation, which hopes to soon provide an update to public schools on new measures, but also because of what is reportedly being experienced at local schools.
Sharing his thoughts with the school board was Seguin ISD parent Luis Moreno. Moreno says he wants the Seguin ISD to take notice of current food service procedures and how that might impact a student.
"I was once on the free and reduced lunch program and unlike other services or programs that trustees get to discuss on a regular basis, this issue is not discussed very often and in my opinion, is one that can make a significant difference in the lives of many students. While I don't know all the statistics, I do know that the percentage of economically disadvantage students at our elementary schools range from Weinert at 56.6 percent to Jefferson at 85.7 percent. I can assume that many of those students are either on a free or a reduced lunch. You have read in your packet and the FAQ that was provided -- the students are allowed to over charge the equivalent of two full price lunches or $5.60. The document also tells you that even when the student exceeds the charge limit, a meal is provided to the student at no charge. What the document doesn't make clear is that too many times, the student will go through the line, get the hot food plate and when he or she gets to the cash register and if the account is delinquent more than $5.60, that food will be taken from the student, thrown away in the trash and given a sandwich and milk. This is lunch shaming," said Moreno.
Also helping to shed light on this issue was local Pediatrician Dr. Bob Stephens. Stephens, who also represents the group Educate Seguin, says because of his practice, he personally knows families who have been impacted or embarrassed by "lunch shamming." He says the health and wellness of a child is the underlying component of hopefully finding a solution for the problem. Dr. Stephens suggested a few tips on how the district could combat this problem.
"We'd like you to consider extending the current two meal limit for students with a zero dollar balance on their meal account. Current policy is that notifications are only sent to the parent about a delinquency on their account once a week, but yet, a two meal limit is only two days. Those things don't align. In addition, notifications are only sent via note in the backpack. If you don't go through your child's backpack, which I suspect many parents from my own experience don't, the parent may not be receiving that notice in a timely fashion. Second, we'd like you to explore the under utilization potentially of the free and reduced lunch program by those families who are eligible. Currently, the form goes home in the mail at registration and it's returned. I think a more pro-active outreach policy to case find students whose families will qualify for this program could be a benefit," said Dr. Stephens.
Two other suggestions included applying for a program sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture called the Community Eligibility Program that could provide a free lunch to all students in the Seguin ISD. The district does qualify. However, he says there are financial ramifications with the program but believes the district might want to further explore the option. He also suggested that the district partner with local non-profits to reduce food waste.
During the district's discussion of its current lunch room policy,T ony Hillberg, assistant superintendent of business services, stated that the district was making sure that staff members at the front lines understand how to deal with these students who have run out of money for lunch. He says it is a very difficult situation when a student has overcharged their account and they are in a situation where they are costing the district -- which he says "is literally taking dollars from other students to feed these students." While it's not his decision to make, Hillberg confirms that the district remains compliant with the Texas Department of Agriculture's guidelines in handling these type of situations.
"And I say that never has there been a situation that a food service worker took a tray from a student and exchanged it for an alternative meal. There are too many opportunities out there for that to have happened but I am here to tell you that that is not the way that they are trained. That is not the procedure. These individuals know their students. They care about their students and in no way, do they want to belittle the students at their campus. That's not what these food service employees want to do," said Hillberg.
Hillberg says he stands behind the procedures of food service staff members who continue to do their best. It was also mentioned that many times, it's the staff members themselves who pay for a child with an overdrawn account.
"What generally they do and what they try to do is be proactive. When they see the students coming through the line, the workers are looking to see if they know the student had an overcharge or is pushing that limit. So when they come through the line, they let the student know that they've exceeded their limit but they are still allowed to take the meal until they reach that two meal limit. That is what the procedure is right now. When they know that a student has reached that point, then at the point of the student coming in, they are offered what is the same meal that is offered to any student that doesn't have any money or any means of getting a meal which is the sack lunch and it does have a sandwich. It also has a milk and a fruit and chips which exceed the minimum requirement(s) from TDA," said Hillberg.
Hillberg says last year, the district was left with a negative balance of roughly $13,000. He says every penny is vital to the district which operates a self-sufficient food service program under the consultation services of Walker Quality Services. He says over the past year, the in-house handling of the Seguin ISD food service department has not only improved but the quality and presentation of food has dramatically increased.
Hillberg also addressed the suggestion of extending the number of overcharges allowed to children before swapping out the warm meal with a sack lunch.
"A very valid point was made in the fact that if we are only going to leave an opportunity to overcharge by two meals, then sending a notification home once a week well obviously, there could be a problem there and I think that stands to reason, that's true. Does that mean that the district should now consider the overcharge to five meals. Well that's an option or possibly the notifications should be sent home more often than once a week. That would be another option. I do want to mention the fact that as of the last week of October, we ran the numbers of student overcharges and at that time, there were 1,372 students with negative balances on their account -- that was a total of $5,578.38. Keep in mind that that is roughly a month and a half into the school year and the food service program is already footing the bill to the tune of $5,578. I'm not here to say that the program can't do that. It certainly can. Could you extend that to five days or five meals? Yes, you could but I can quantify what that would look like in terms of dollars," said Hillberg.
Following his presentation, Hillberg immediately fielded a series of additional questions and comments made by members of the school board. It was dialogue that ultimately prompted the need for a future workshop. Some suggested doing away with the consulting firm, WQS to help cover the costs. One suggested that parents have up to 30 days to pay on their accounts and a trio of others wanted to know why parents are just not filling out the forms at the beginning of the school year.
Trustee Elaina Reihl also wanted to know why the district was throwing away a hot meal in exchange for a sack lunch that cost just 15 cents less to produce.
Hillberg and other district officials agreed that their current way of handling this issue was definitely worth looking at a little further and should be revisited especially now that they await more understanding from the state. He says whatever supplemental dollars can be pulled from the general operating budget or whatever other adjustments need to be made can all be further discussed at the workshop.
Over the summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill into law addressing "lunch shaming." The enactment of Senate Bill 1566 is said to include an amendment creating a grace period allowing "these students to continue eating lunch."
Moreno, who had originally met with Board President Cinde Thomas-Jimenez to discuss the issue, says despite whatever grace period or action is decided, no kid should ever be embarrassed at the lunch line. He also says he looks forward to solidifying the ideals set forth by Superintendent Matthew Gutierrez in the required district read, "Teaching Kids with Poverty in Mind" by Eric Jensen.
"Dr. Gutierrez, I haven't had the opportunity to discuss this issue with you, but I have heard you speak, I have seen your tweets and I am moved by your story. I know you know what it would feel like to be like in that child's shoes. Dr. Gutierrez, board members, this is an opportunity to engage students with poverty in mind. As stated in the first chapter of the book that everyone in this district is talking about, when kids don't eat well or when they don't eat at all, their behavior suffers and they have a tougher time learning. So while you discuss this item this evening, I hope that the discussion you have keeps the focus on the students and that we are not punishing our children for the behavior of their parents. Dr. Gutierrez, if we want to follow that book and that we emphasize that we are a family, then tell me what family member would take away your food after it's already in your hands? Our kids deserve a great day, every day. They need caring adults at home and at school. Actions speak louder than words, so why not adjust our policy to focus on our children,?" said Moreno.
No action on the issue was taken during Tuesday's meeting. District officials say a board workshop on the school lunch policy is tentatively slated for Jan. 4. 2018.