After donors completely paid off the Edmonds School District’s meal debt in early summer, the debt has re-grown to over $5,800.
As of the end of business on Tuesday, Sept. 26, the exact total was $5,832.23.
Though that number may seem high after class has been in session for just three weeks, it is not entirely unexpected. This year is the first year of a new pilot program where students who cannot pay for their meals will receive the same meal as everyone else, rather than a less expensive “courtesy meal.”
The “courtesy meals” consisted of cereal and milk for breakfast or a cheese sandwich, raisins and a box of juice for lunch. The “courtesy meal” program had been in place since 2010
The “courtesy meals” were smaller than hot meals, and Barbara Lloyd, director of the district’s food and nutrition services department, explained that some students found it upsetting to receive the smaller meals.
So, once the nearly $7,000 in school meal debt was paid off by donors in May, the district decided to pilot a new program – every student gets the same meal, for breakfast and lunch, regardless of their ability to pay.
“There was a great joy among my team,” Lloyd said, when she told them they could serve all students the same meal.
The downside of the pilot program is that students can now accrue debt regularly. With the old system, students were not charged for “courtesy meals” and the only way debt could be accrued was if a parent used a check to add money to the student’s account and it later bounced, or if the meal-charging system was down. Now, students’ accounts are charged for the meal they receive regardless of what is in their account.
As of Tuesday’s School Board meeting, 903 students were in debt.
“Most debts are under $10,” Lloyd said. “This is a very fluid category.”
The rate of the debt has slowed down, Lloyd said, and that was also expected. This is the first month of school, after all, and parents are still figuring out the new lunch system and turning in free or reduced lunch applications. Families within certain income brackets can apply for free or reduced meal prices. (Graphs show some students who qualify for free lunch have accrued debt because they accrued the debt before they had qualified.)
Most students who are in debt, however, don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch pricing and would pay full price for lunch. The food and nutrition services department is working to keep parents informed of when their students are in debt.
If there is less than $10 in a student’s lunch account, for example, they will receive an automated email on Wednesday. If they fall into the red, they will begin receiving phone calls from food and nutrition services.
The school lunch donor fund is still open at this link and has approximately $2,000 remaining. Those funds, along with any newly donated dollars, will eventually be used to pay off new student meal debt. The department will decide which students get their debts paid off at a later time, but emphasizes that the system by which students are chosen will be equitable, meaning those who have less ability to pay it off will be helped first.
“My hope, my thought, is we will continue to solicit and gather donations so when the time comes that we need to decide which debt to ride off, we have the money to ride it off,” Lloyd said.
Overall, Lloyd thinks the program has been successful so far.
“I think this is a much better way to go about it,” she said.
School board members agreed.
“We’ll find a way to pay for it,” Board Member Ann McMurray said.
“We need to remember that this is a pilot program and we need to get through this year,” said Board Member Diana White, referencing the new debt.
Student Advisor Yubi Lojewski from Meadowdale High School was touched by the presentation.
“As someone who received courtesy lunches in elementary school, I’m really proud they aren’t doing that anymore, because it can be embarrassing,” she said.
–By Natalie Covate