Donations from a Community Problem Solvers group left Food Services with a dilemma.
By Paige Wilson and Brian McMillan
When six eighth-graders at Indian Trails Middle School found out that the lunch debt in Flagler Schools stands at about $40,000, they were shocked.
“That kind of just kick-started our group and powered our determination to try and solve it,” Charlotte Fletcher said.
The Community Problem Solvers formed a group called “Student Food Contribution” and set out to reduce their classmates’ debt one at a time.
Their first step was to raise money at the First Friday event in Flagler Beach in October. They set up a booth with homemade Halloween carnival games, each costing $1. They ended up raising $100, said Rylee Stives, a member of SFC.
This got their momentum going. Next, they passed out flyers at a local trunk or treat to spread the word. For Thanksgiving, they used their own money to buy items like mashed potatoes, corn bread, biscuits and gravy to donate to a local family.
“That felt really good because you can give them something for Thanksgiving so that they can be with their family and not worry about spending more money,” Genesis Santiago-Gil said.
In December, Student Food Contribution visited the Palm Coast Elks Club to garner more support in the community. They raised $360 from the Elks, Julieta Kauffmann said.
“Not only are they getting other community support, but they’re utilizing their own houses and families and really trying to just get in there and tackle the job,” ITMS teacher Jennifer Colindres said. “It’s like they’ve taken it and really personalized it for themselves.”
The group sat down with Flagler Schools Food Services Director Angela Bush to put their fundraising to good use; it cleared or lowered the debt of 21 students who qualified for reduced lunch at ITMS.
But that’s where their momentum was halted.
Every child fed
A kindergartner with wrinkled clothes and smudges on her face used to go through the breakfast line every day at Old Kings Elementary School while Bush was the assistant food manager there 15 years ago. But she couldn’t afford the meal, so every morning, the kindergartner would get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
At lunchtime, the little girl would go through the line again, and she would get another peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
“That was heartbreaking,” Bush recalled. She remembers lunch workers bringing money from home to give to some of the students so they didn’t have to eat PB&J for every meal.
The kindergartner was friendly to the food service employees. She even picked wildflowers and gave them to “Miss Angie.”
When Bush was promoted to director of Food Services at Flagler Schools in 2005, she made some changes to eliminate “lunch shaming.” From now on, she decided, every child would be given the same meal, whether they could pay for it or not.
It made sense financially, as well as morally, to Bush. Under the previous system, if a child came to the end of the line with a tray of food and realized he or she forgot money, the food was thrown in the garbage for sanitation reasons, and the child was directed to the peanut butter and jelly station. But that was a lot of wasted food, and the cost of the sandwiches was not reimbursed by any federal programs.
On the other hand, if the child was given the standard lunch, the federal programs would reimburse at least a portion of the meal.
The system works great, but what happens to students like the kindergartner who aren’t in any of the programs but also didn’t pay? That still happens today, and students can accumulate negative balances on their accounts as a result.
Who pays for the negative balance?
Once it hits $5, Bush said, an automated call goes out to the parents. From there, the Food Services employees might make personal calls to schools or directly to the families. They might send letters to parents. And if it’s still not paid?
“I’m unsure about that,” Bush said. “At that point, Food Services doesn’t have any jurisdiction over that. I would say call the principal.”
Belle Terre Elementary School’s Dr. Terence Culver is one of Flagler Schools’ most visible principals: He directs traffic in the car rider line every morning and afternoon, and he has even ridden bus routes to give extra support to drivers with unruly students. And he knows that students need to eat, regardless of their ability to pay.
“We’re not going to send any kid home hungry,” he said. If students rack up an unpaid account, Cafeteria Manager Linda Mayer and staff encourage the parents to pay and to sign up for free or reduced lunch, where appropriate.
But ultimately, Culver said, “We can’t force the parent to pay it.”
At the end of sixth grade, with an unpaid account or not, the student can move to middle school. And then high school. And at the end of high school, there’s no real way to collect the unpaid balance, either.
Administrative Assistant Odessa Ohree, of Flagler Palm Coast High School, said the student is responsible to settle the account through the cafeteria. When graduation season comes, FPC is not notified of unpaid accounts.
Overall, this can add up in a district of 12,000 students. Bush said the balance districtwide is about $40,000, which sparked the interest of Colindres’ students. After Bush helped them to reduce 21 students’ debts, only a handful of reduced-price lunch accounts were left unpaid at ITMS.
But the more she thought about it, the more uncomfortable Bush felt. “You can see where we would get into issues if we continued down that road, if those students continued to make money and we were put in a position to determine where it should go.”
So who does pay for the unpaid meal accounts? Despite three interviews with the Palm Coast Observer, the district was never able to give a complete explanation of how an individual lunch debt is paid off.
“We record our revenues, we record our expenses,” Bush said. “Where the money comes from to cover what we’re calling the debt, I can’t tell you dollar for dollar.”
But Bush indicated the approximately $40,000 debt doesn’t cause problems for Food Services, which has an annual budget of $5.7 million, none of which comes from the School Board’s general fund. In addition to federal grants, Food Services also profits from sales of things like Powerade and chips that are sold separately from the regular lunch menu.
If more students decided not to pay for lunch, the debt could increase dramatically, in theory. But as of now, there are no clear consequences for not paying.
School Board member Trevor Tucker agreed that the unpaid meal accounts have never caused the district a problem and that accepting donations to pay for the accounts would be an “accounting nightmare” for Food Services. The only thing the district can do is rely on the parents feeling personal responsibility.
“We can’t lien a house, we can’t kick a child out of school, and we don’t want a child not to eat — that would be very adverse to learning,” Tucker said. “There are no true solutions here. There is no consequence you could enforce.”
‘How it has to be’
After Bush voiced concerns about where the Student Food Contribution’s fundraised money would really be going, she told the group it would be better to donate the money to organizations not funded by USDA, like the Fed by Grace Backpack Program that provides meals for students when they’re not in school.
With the Community Problem Solvers statewide Affiliate Competition approaching in March, the group members are left wondering how this change will affect their project in the judges’ eyes.
“They’re going to be glad that we’re doing it because we’re making a difference in our community,” Julieta said. “But at the same time, we made an underlying problem in the beginning of the year, and with that, I don’t think this idea really falls under that. But it is falling under our main idea, kind of. So, I don’t know how the judges are going to feel about that.”
Charlotte said the group will have to detail the shift in their goals in a scrapbook they’ll be presenting at the competition, as well as explain the changes to the local organizations that have donated.
After meeting with members of AMVETS Post 113 recently, the organization decided to give the proceeds from its Valentine’s Day fundraiser, totaling $1,400, to Student Food Contribution. SFC will attend the AMVETS meeting Sunday to talk about the group’s changes.
“I think (the judges are) going to understand because it wasn’t under our control,” Genesis said. “It’s just how it has to be.”
Genesis added that this shift will allow the group to help students beyond the walls at ITMS.
“I don’t think it’s going to negatively affect us,” Genesis said. “Maybe it’ll do good because they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you stood strong and you did something else and you fixed it in another way you didn’t do it before.’ So, we’re just going to have to wait and see what happens.”