Marshalltown adapting to new school meals law
A state law passed in April is bringing new rules for school districts to follow when it comes to serving meals — the Marshalltown School Board was updated on those rules at Monday’s board meeting.
District Director of Food Service Lynn Large presented the information and had board members and some administrators participate in a demonstration mimicking a school lunch line.
“I do want you to know what it feels like to be a student coming through our lunch lines and exactly how we treat students who have negative accounts,” she said.
The “students” were each handed a slip showing their account balance. Some had more money than others, and two of the participants were given negative account balances. Large, acting as a school meal staff member, said things like “Enjoy your lunch” to all those in line, and said to those with low or negative accounts, “You’ll need to bring money soon, OK?”
The demonstration also served to show the board members what lunch options are available to students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals under federal guidelines.
“Could anybody identify who the participant(s) with the negative account balance was through this process?” she said to the board after the demonstration.
Though two people were given negative balances, none of the participants said they could tell who they were in the lunch line — that was part of Large’s point during the demo.
Large said under the newly-passed state law outlined in House File 2467, schools cannot bring public attention to students for having a negative account balance. Part of following those rules comes down to how alternative meals — which are reduced in price or free for qualifying students — are served.
“We cannot publicly identify or stigmatize the student, including but not limited to requiring the student to consume a meal at a specified table, wearing a wristband, marking on the hand or asking students to do chores or other work to pay for the meal,” Large said. “We will not deny participation in an after-school program or extracurricular activity to students who cannot pay their lunch bill.”
One recent measure to prevent identification was to change the free and reduced meals to include a turkey sandwich instead of the previous cheese sandwich. Fruit and a milk are also served with alternative meals, and the meals are provided as an option to every student, every day.
“The turkey sandwich, fruit and milk is more substantial of a meal and also adding the fruit … really helps prevent identification because it is required as part of our reimbursable meal under the new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act,” Large said. “You can’t really distinguish amongst a tray that a child was told to take … versus they just wanted it because it’s an option every day.”
She went over other legal requirements from HF 2467, such as letting parents and guardians know at least twice annually about applications for free and reduced-price meals, as well as not being able to discard a meal once a student has picked up their food in the lunch line.
“This is kind of the flaw in our policy here, is that if we ask you to please take a turkey sandwich meal at lunch time, but you just don’t care and you come through the line and take the pizza anyway … we cannot take the tray from you and instead swap it out for a turkey sandwich meal, which we used to do,” Large said.
As a result of this “loophole,” she suggested the board consider a change to the district’s meal charging policy.
“What I would like to propose to you is that any child that chooses not to take the free meal that we can give, that we could continue charging students for the meals selected and then any account that reaches $50 would be turned to collections,” Large said. “It’s my hope that we could be as proactive as possible with these students and families so that we wouldn’t run into a situation like that.”
No action was taken on the proposed policy change Monday.
Board member Mike Miller asked if wider changes to meal provision policy would be possible.
“What if we just gave them universally free (meals) everywhere, breakfast and lunch? Why couldn’t we do that?” he said, referring to district students.
Large said she would like to be able to provide meals in that fashion, but it would not currently be feasible.
“I’m not sure we could afford it, because the paying dollar of it that does come from the paid meal is still important,” she said. “I think until the federal government puts some guidelines in place or some funding in place to really support that concept, I don’t think we could actually put that into action here yet.”
Miller also asked about another option.
“Couldn’t we charge a little bit more at registration and not go through all of this headache all year long?” he said.
Large said that would also be difficult.
“There’s just very strict parameters on what funding the nutrition program can utilize,” she said. “I think if we collected money specifically for meal accounts at registration, which we do, that money could go into accounts.”
A majority of Marshalltown students qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunch. According to Iowa Department of Education figures collected in 2017, about 67.2 percent of students are eligible for such meals.
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