The School Committee’s decision last Tuesday after they have already received three hot lunches with no money on account has pointed up some confusion surrounding the prepay lunch program.
Some parents (including this reporter) were completely unaware that all school children from first grade through high school are able to, essentially, “charge” lunch. According to school officials, students are given an i.d. number that stays with them through their school years. At lunchtime, if they choose to buy lunch, they punch in their number on a key pad that sits next to the cashier. Then they either pay for their lunch with cash or the cost of lunch is deducted from money a parent has deposited in an account. (A video of a few transactions is attached at right.)
According to Aramark, the food service company for East Greenwich, children who punch in their number and have no money and no prepay account will still get a lunch. Parents who do not want their child to buy lunch or want to place limits on how much they can order can, through the NutriKids website, put those prohibitions in place. However, several parents said that until the story surfaced last week, they were not aware they could do that.
“I just logged in to Nutrikids and looked around,” wrote Sue W. . “There is a setting that you can change to send you an alert via email when you reach a dollar amount balance that you choose. Who knew?”
“This has been a very important lesson,” said School Committee Chairwoman Deidre Gifford Friday. “We can do a better job of communicating with families.”
The School Committee decided to establish the “cold cheese sandwich” practice because some students owed as much as $100 for lunches. The policy does not affect those children who receive free or reduced-cost lunches.
For the rest of the student population, hot lunches cost $2.25 in the elementary schools, $2.50 at Cole Middle School and $2.75 at EGHS. There are extras that students can buy at Cole and EGHS, such as chips, ice cream and juice drinks. And students at any of the schools whose parents have signed up to prepay can buy more than one lunch.
Students are told by cashiers when their account is running low, except at Meadowbrook and Frenchtown, where employees are not allowed to tell students when their account is low or empty. According to Aramark’s Kelly McKeon, assistant food manager for East Greenwich, that sort of decision is made by individual building principals.
But, she said, that could be the reason that one elementary school, in particular, has a high deficit. “There is no connection between the cashier and the students about talking about balances or anything like that,” she said, declining to name the school.
NutriKids allows parents of any student who buys lunch, regardless of how its paid for, to track what their children eat, if they choose to look. And they can put limits on how much a child can spend. McKeon said, for instance, that a parent at Cole just contacted her about putting a $5 limit on how much her child could spend at lunch.
McKeon said that Aramark sent information about the lunch program home with students in September.
The events of the past week, however, have convinced the School Committee’s Gifford that a more concerted effort needs to be made to inform parents.
“Parents do have a responsibility to monitor the balance, she said, but “the district definitely needs to do a better job. We also want to make very sure that any family who had a change in financial circumstances or if they have a balance that they’re struggling to pay, to talk to the school principal and set up a payment schedule.”