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Decatur School Board writing school nutrition policy to address meal charges, alternative meals

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Decatur School Board writing school nutrition policy to address meal charges, alternative meals

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

Decatur, GA — The Decatur School Board is drafting a school nutrition policy addressing meal charges and alternative meals.

In January, City Schools of Decatur officials said the district had accumulated $88,000 in debt from unpaid meal charges between 2018-2024. The district found itself in the middle of a controversy after suggesting cheese sandwiches as an alternative meal for students with an unpaid meal debt.

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

To recoup that debt and deter families from charging their accounts, the district planned to limit the amount that could be charged to a student’s account. If that limit were to be reached, a student would’ve received an alternate meal.

The Arby’s Foundation stepped in to cover the $88,000, and Perimeter Roofing Company donated $60,000 to the Decatur Education Foundation. However, between Feb. 2 and March 12, CSD accrued about $7,700 in additional meal debt.

The district averages about $700 a day in meal debt. The school board is now working with the administration to draft a school nutrition policy that addresses these issues. The policy has not been finalized yet.

“No existing policy addresses some of the nutrition concerns that have arisen in the district and school community,” a district spokesperson told Decaturish. “This policy, like others, will create more comprehensive guidance and structure for the School Nutrition Program.”

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.

“This financial practice ensures that the program remains self-sustaining and efficiently manages its resources,” the spokesperson said. “Subsidizing the school nutrition fund with the general fund takes critical resources from other priorities, such as the classroom, instruction, and teacher compensation.”

The board began discussing the policy in February and, at the time, identified some priorities for the policy, like fiscal sustainability and transparency and the idea that debt should not accrue year over year. Equity also came up in some different ways.

“One was in the allocation based on need, so understanding that if we’re taking funds to help pay a balance of nutrition, we were taking it from somewhere else,” Chief of Staff Amanda Lynch said at the March 12 school board meeting. “Also related to that was transparency and access to information and resources – being transparent, making sure everyone knows what’s available and [what] applications are out there by providing that support.”

A big priority for the board has been proactive communication and letting families know if they have meal debt and about supports, like free and reduced lunch.

School board members have favored allowing families and students to charge up to three days worth of meals to their accounts. Adults would not be able to charge meals.

School board members also agreed that students would be given an alternative meal if they reached the meal charge limit. No decisions have been made about what the meal would be.

School Board Vice Chair Dr. Carmen Sulton added that other school districts in the state cannot provide an alternative meal and that CSD wants to ensure students still receive a meal at school.

“I think the stigma or the misunderstanding is that we would shame a child if they had to have an alternative meal,” Sulton said. “From a fiscal standpoint, we’ve gotten to the point where we have wiped the debt, but we’ve left the root of the problem in place. The school nutrition program cannot survive at this pace.”

During the March 12 pre-work session, the board also pushed for more proactive communication so families are aware of any unpaid charges on their student’s account. Notices about their child’s school meal account are currently sent to families on Fridays, but the school board would like those notices to be sent more often.

Board members also urged the district to ensure that alternative meals are served with grace and dignity if they are to be offered.

During a Decatur School Board community meeting on Jan. 17, parents raised concerns about the proposed alternative meal at the time, 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.

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