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Riverhead adopts updated school lunch debt policy

A Pennsylvania school district made national headlines earlier this summer when about a dozen families received an alarming letter from their public school. It warned that their child could be removed from their home and placed in foster care if outstanding lunch debt was not paid.

Administrators in Wyoming Valley West School District sent the notice to parents whose children owed $10 or more to the school district, National Public Radio reported.

So what is the procedure in Riverhead for outstanding lunch debt? Parents can rest assured the consequences are nowhere near as dire.

The Riverhead Board of Education unanimously approved the district’s updated  policy on school meal charges at Tuesday’s board meeting.

The program, established in 2013, allows students who do not have enough funds with them to “charge” the cost of regular reimbursable meals to be paid back at a later date. The program is self-sustaining and does not receive funds for routine operations, the policy states. For that reason, it must generate funds through the sale of student and adult meals, a la carte sales and federal and state reimbursement.

The updated policy eliminated a section that said after a fifth charge, the student would only be permitted to charge a cold sandwich meal. It also eliminated a provision that after $500 in charges are made, the district could refer the outstanding bill to a collection agent.

Under the updated policy, after a student charges a meal once, a robocall will be made to the home of the student telling the parent of the charge. The cafeteria cashier on duty will inform the student they need to bring money to school the next day to pay for the meal. The same will occur after a total of five charges.

Once a student reaches six meal charges, a live phone call will be made to the home of the student. After charge 20, parents will be asked to come to the school for a face-to-face meeting with the building administrator or school meal program manager.

At the discretion of the superintendent, students with outstanding charges at the end of the school year may not be permitted to participate in the graduation or moving-up ceremony, junior or senior prom and end-of-year dance, the policy states. Students may also be restricted from receiving a high school parking pass or purchasing a yearbook.

Deputy Superintendent Sam Schneider said last Tuesday that as of July 1, 2019, enrolled students owed roughly $22,900 to the cafeteria program. Additional debt is owed by students who have withdrawn from the district or enrolled elsewhere, he said.

“As is current practice, the district will be as flexible as possible with parents regarding repayment of lunch debt,” he said. “It is requested parents and/or guardians contact the district directly to work out a plan.”

In 2014, the Riverhead News-Review reported that in its first year of implementation the program accumulated nearly $17,000 in debt.

The policy states that uncollected charges may result in higher meal prices for all students. Elementary school students currently pay $2.50 for lunch, middle school students pay $2.75 for lunch and high school students pay $3.

The policy does not apply to students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Those receiving reduced-price lunches will continue to pay 25 cents per meal.

Students in Aquebogue Elementary School, Phillips Avenue School, Pulaski Street School, Roanoke Avenue Elementary School and now the middle school do not pay for meals regardless of family income because the district participates in the Community Eligibility Provision, which allows schools with high percentages of low-income children to offer breakfast and lunch for free to all students.

Mr. Schneider said the district reapplies for the eligibility provision for Riverhead High School and Riley Avenue Elementary School but the application is rejected each year.

Students are eligible for free breakfast, lunch and milk if they meet certain criteria based on household size and income. A student from a four-person home earning $32,630 or less annually qualifies for free meals.

All children in households receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families can receive free meals regardless of income.

Earlier this year, district officials raised the price of breakfast and lunches for staff and faculty. The cost of breakfast is $2.50 with tax; lunch is $4.50 with tax.

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