The School Meal Charge Regulation at Durango schools was modified Monday to end partial lunches that could be provided to children whose parents were behind in payments.
The revamped regulation also includes a new hardship application offered to parents who pay full price for their children’s meals but fall in arrears because of financial changes, situational changes or other hardships that pinch family finances.
The changes in the Durango School District 9-R rule went into effect Monday, the day before Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting when several Food and Nutritional Service employees told board members they felt misrepresented and belittled by news media coverage of “food shaming” and a social media petition drive, signed by more than 2,500 people, calling for 9-R “to remove its partial meal policy and ensure all students receive full and complete meals.”
Valerie Bareis, a senior administrative assistant for 9-R Student Nutrition Services, said, “The recent media coverage and social media postings regarding 9-R Food Services have been disheartening and demoralizing for our entire group. The words written about us misrepresent who we are and what we do for our students every day of the year.”
Bareis said she works with members of her department and other administration officials to provide information to families about the Nutrition Services department, to answer questions, to offer help for families in applying for free and reduced meals and to provide guidance for families struggling to pay school meals.
Janice Coleman, kitchen manager at Riverview Elementary School, told the board, “None of us wants to have the conversation with a student about not having the funds in their account for a meal. We rely on administrators and counselors to reach out to parents. At Riverview, our assistant principal assists with calling parents and reminding them to fund their student’s meal account.”
She added, “Kitchen staff sometimes even reach into their own pockets to pay for student lunches.”
The controversy started in April 2019 when Robyn Baxendale, a special education para-educator at Miller Middle School, started an online fundraiser to pay for families behind in their meal charges after a sign was placed in the Miller cafeteria that read: “Kiddos – Partial lunch will be given to you if you have charges (of) $8 or more. Be prepared for partial lunches from here until the end of the school year!”
9-R has reported 10 partial lunches were served during the 2018-19 school year and no partial lunches have been served during the current school year.
Jessica Obleton, who started the online petition to change the meal charge regulation, also spoke Tuesday – apologizing to kitchen workers if they felt criticized by comments on the petition and said disrespectful online comments directed to cafeteria employees “was never our intention.”
She also thanked the administration, saying changes to the regulation showed a willingness by district officials to listen to the community and to make changes based on public input.
Board President Shere Byrd told Obleton and other petition-backers the school meal regulation is determined by the administration, not the Board of Education. The appropriate place to have begun a conversation on changing the regulation would have been with the administration, which handles day-to-day operations.
“When you bypass the administration by going to the board, it makes it a tough loop to close,” she said.
Byrd also thanked the Nutrition Services staff members for their work and enduring unfavorable comments in the media and online.
Beside changes to the meal charge regulation, 9-R is adding a website page that beginning next school year will be able to take charitable donations directed to help pay off debts of full-pay families in arrears on their meal charges if they submitted hardship applications. Donations will also help fund meals for children eligible for reduced or free lunches. Donations can also go to pay off debts incurred by families before they receive free or reduced status for their children’s meals.
The hardship application would allow a parent who is responsible to pay full price for their child’s meal to have their debt paid off by charitable donations, through the 9-R fund balance from the district at the end of the year, and by establishing a payment plan.
The meal debt has been reduced from about $18,000 four years ago to about $1,400 currently.
An earlier version of this story reported the Durango Education Foundation is working to establish a nonprofit with a mission to raise funds to pay accumulated unpaid meal debt in Durango School District 9-R. The Foundation says it is not creating a nonprofit.