YOU ASKED: What's the policy for overdue lunch accounts?
In light of recent media attention given to lunch shaming — the act of calling students out for having a low lunch account balance — a reader asked what the lunch account policy is in Alexandria schools.
According to Superintendent Julie Critz, no student in the district will ever be denied a lunch or spoken to about their balance in front of other students, regardless of their account status.
Once a middle or high school student's account hits negative $100, the student is provided a specific meal, called a courtesy meal.
Called the courtesy meal Critz described it as "a balanced, full meal and families are not charged for it. If a family is struggling to pay their meal account, once they are into courtesy meals, we are not continuing to charge them."
The food items in courtesy meals are options that are available every day for any student, so it is not obvious if a student is on courtesy meals.
Students at the elementary level may continue to eat what they choose, regardless of their account balance.
So if a child is being fed, what is to keep parents from letting a child's lunch account remain in the negative? Critz says that beginning this school year, allowing a child's account balance to remain negative can impact a parent's credit score.
"What we started that we have not done in the past is that we turn them over to collections, to the credit bureau," she said. "In the past, it has not affected their credit rating."
In an effort to keep students from being singled out or shamed, conversations about their lunch balance never take place in the cafeteria.
"We think it is important that we are not having conversations with students about their lunch balance in the cafeteria," Critz said. "Kids go through lunch line, and no one there says, 'Dump your tray,' or, 'You have to go back, you picked the wrong meal.' That's not how we're handling it."
Instead, if a student's balance is far enough in the negative, a principal or counselor will often have a private conversation with them to find out what is going on. Sometimes, Critz says, the student's family may qualify for free or reduced meal plans but didn't know or simply haven't filled out the paperwork.
In other cases, there may be unique family circumstance, such as a parent who is out of work or a family member that is ill, and that can merit a different plan.
"We do have private citizens who have offered to support families in those situations," Critz said. "They don't get to know the circumstances and it's not an application process. A family really just has to work with the school and when the school finds out there's some kind of special circumstance, that's when we offer support."
Private citizens who wish to assist with meal accounts can make a tax-deductible donation to the Alexandria Education Foundation with a note that the donation is meant for meals.
According to the district policy, parents are automatically notified when a student's account is below $15. They also have the option of using the school district's app to set up lunch account notification and track balances. This makes it simple to keep track of a student's account, Critz says.
"I think it would be difficult for them (parents) to be taken by surprise because we're working hard to make sure parents are warned before they're in the negative," Critz said.
In the end, Critz says the district policy was designed to do three things.
"We work hard to treat kids with dignity, make sure they have a healthy meal and to maintain positive relationships with families," Critz said.
Lunch money policy
The Alexandria School District's balance notification policy:
• $15 or less: an automated email is sent to parents.
• Negative $0.01: an automated phone call is made after 6:15 p.m.
• Negative $25: a personal phone call from a food service staff member is made.
• Negative $50: a principal or counselor will contact parent/guardian to learn more about family circumstances, to offer assistance with a free or reduced meal application or to assist in developing another plan. A letter/invoice also will be sent.
• Negative $75: the director of food and nutrition services will call the parent/guardian to notify them of a potential credit bureau referral at negative $100.
• Negative $100: the food services department will continue to notify family of the account status via phone, email or U.S. postal mail. At this point, students in middle and high school will be offered courtesy meals.