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Decatur Schools plans to serve cheese sandwiches to some students with unpaid meal charges

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Decatur Schools plans to serve cheese sandwiches to some students with unpaid meal charges

Elizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Decatur, GA — Beginning Feb. 1, City Schools of Decatur will begin serving an alternative meal of a cheese sandwich and milk to some students who have unpaid meal charges.

Under the updated meal charge procedures, students can have a maximum of three meals charged to their accounts for the entire school year. Once the limits are reached, students will be given an alternative meal.

For middle and high school students, that means $10.50 can be charged to their account, and it’s $9.75 for elementary students, before they are given a cheese sandwich.

During a Decatur School Board community meeting on Jan. 17, parents raised concerns about the alternative meal, the potential for children to be shamed by their peers, and the potential for students to be punished for something out of their control. Some also raised concerns about families being able to make payments.

The school district has incurred a balance of about $88,000 in unpaid meal charges. Of that total amount, 46% are students who pay for lunch, 36% are students who receive free or reduced lunch, 6% are CSD staff and 12% are students who are no longer in the school district.

“I would love for the administration and nutrition department to come up with some creative solutions between now and winter break that lowers the risk that these kids are going to be shamed, or the kids will be given an alternative lunch. I hope they are working on that. I look forward to seeing what we can do,” School Board Chair James Herndon said during the community meeting.

The school nutrition department is a federal initiative and has to adhere to the United States Department of Agriculture’s regulations on school nutrition. School districts that participate in the federal lunch program received cash subsidies and donated items from the USDA. In return, they must meet the federal requirements of the program.

A spokesperson for City Schools of Decatur said the school system is committed to offering nutritious meals to students.

“To offer an alternative meal at no additional cost to students, we have selected the most economical choice that still offers a nutritious meal,” the spokesperson said.

City Schools of Decatur’s budget is divided into four categories — the school nutrition revenue budget, the special revenue budget, the capital projects budget, and the general fund budget.

The school nutrition department operates as a self-sufficient and independent program. It is sustained through government reimbursement and meal payments, a spokesperson for CSD said. General fund money cannot be used to cover the unpaid meal charges

So the district is asking families to pay any outstanding balances related to school meals.

“At this point, we have not made any progress as far as paying off the debt. We are a nonprofit organization,” School Nutrition Director Monique Breedlove said during a community meeting on Jan. 17. “We want our kids to have a regular lunch, but our program can’t run if we’re not bringing in the funds from students paying for it.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government provided funding to public schools, so every student could receive meals at no cost, regardless of family income. That program ended in 2022 and CSD continued its regular practice of meal charges.

A spokesperson for the school district said families do not have to pay any full negative balances before Feb. 1 for their children to have a meal. Parents can contact the nutrition department to make or arrange payments.

“Payment is done through the Infinite Campus Portal, which supports recurring payments,” the spokesperson said. “Parents and guardians are accountable for covering the costs of any debt on their students’ accounts. Charging a meal should only be done in emergency situations and resolved as soon as possible to avoid accumulating meal debts.”

She added that the school nutrition department will send parents weekly emails to address any balances. She also said all outstanding balances should be settled as quickly as possible.

“The change in the meal charge procedure beginning February [1] is to discourage the regular practice of charging meals, bring negative nutrition accounts to current levels, ensure compliance with federal regulations, and prevent negative debts in the school nutrition program.” the spokesperson said.

During the community meeting, School Board Member Tracey Anderson said her takeaway is the district is transitioning back to “whatever was considered normal or typical in the world of education” before the pandemic.

“I think of one of the most important questions I had, and I have received from people is knowing that no student receiving free and reduced lunch is going to receive the alternate meal, and a big shoutout to Dr. Whitaker for already establishing contact with an organization that has agreed to pay a significant amount of that particular debt,” Anderson added.

Whitaker nor the district’s spokesperson elaborated on this effort but said an announcement is forthcoming and a memorandum of understanding is under review.

She added that the issue has come to her a few times, and she notified the school board in August but wasn’t going to make changes right away.

“Even when it first came to me, the suggestion was well in high school, none. I said no because I know what it’s like not to have the money and to go through the line. I also know what it’s like to not get a lunch at all, so I can’t let that happen,” Whitaker said. “That’s not right, that someone’s hungry.”

“I want everyone to be served, just like I want everyone to be taught, just like I want everyone to learn, but a decision has to be made that is a deterrent from racking up the bills,” she added.

Whitaker said earlier in the meeting that the decision is about financial sustainability.

CSD also put together a FAQ about school nutrition. To view the FAQ, click here.

Here is an email sent to parents on Jan. 9 that outlines the changes:

Dear Parents/Guardians:

Re: Important Update – Nutrition Department Meal Charge Procedure

We hope you are experiencing a great school year. This letter is to inform you of an important change to the meal charge procedure to bring nutrition accounts current.

CSD is committed to providing every child access to healthy and palatable meals during their school day. This commitment includes ensuring parental responsibility, timely communication, and adherence to all federal regulations related to the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs.

As a reminder, any family experiencing financial hardship can apply for free or reduced-price meals anytime during the school year using the Infinite Campus Parent Portal.


At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the federal government provided funds for every public school student to receive meals at no cost, regardless of family income. The program ended in 2022, and the district resumed the regular practice of meal charges, with notifications of outstanding balances. During the 2022-23 school year, students were allowed to continue to receive regular priced meals even if they had a balance on their account. The unpaid lunch fees have resulted in a districtwide $88,000.00 balance, and a change in our meal payment procedure is required.

Charging Guidelines:

Our School Nutrition Program operates as an independent fund, sustained through meal payments and government reimbursements. This financial practice ensures that the program remains self-sustaining and efficiently manages its resources.

It is the responsibility of parents/guardians to cover the costs of any debt on student lunch accounts. As a reminder, any family experiencing financial hardship can apply for free or reduced-price meals at any time during the school year in the Infinite Campus Parent Portal by clicking “More” and then “Meal Benefits.”

While we understand that emergencies can arise, we want to encourage all families to maintain a positive lunch account balance. Families can pay their outstanding balance and add funds to lunch accounts through the Infinite Campus Parent Portal by clicking “Food Service.” The district is working to make the payment process easier for families. As a first step, the transaction fee for electronic check payments has been reduced from $4.00 to $0.35.

Please be advised that all outstanding negative balances must be settled as soon as possible. Payment arrangements may be made by contacting the Nutrition Department.

The new meal payment procedure will come into effect on February 1, 2024 and will include the following guidelines:

Middle and High school students will have a maximum limit of three charged meals, equivalent to -$10.50 per student for the entire school year.

Elementary school students will have a maximum limit of three charged meals, equivalent to -$9.75 per student for the entire school year.

Once these limits are reached, students will be provided an alternative lunch. The alternative lunch will be a cheese sandwich and milk.

If the debt is not resolved or continues to accumulate, it will be referred to the school counselor.
Adults are required to pay the full cost before receiving meals.

This revised procedure underscores the City Schools of Decatur’s commitment to adhering to federal guidelines and providing nutritious meals to students while practicing fiscal responsibility.

Account Notices:

The school nutrition department will communicate with parents/guardians through various means to address negative balances. This is crucial for the timely resolution of financial obligations. Families will receive notifications for negative balances weekly.

As a reminder, all families can apply for free or reduced-price meals anytime during the school year using the Infinite Campus Parent Portal.

Please also be aware that student accounts must be settled before a student withdraws or transfers to another district school. Student transcripts will be held until outstanding balances are paid.

Your understanding and cooperation in the implementation of these changes is appreciated. If you have any questions or require further clarification, please do not hesitate to contact our school nutrition department at [email protected].


Monique Breedlove, Director of Nutrition

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