Belen students, staff to receive substitute lunches after five charges

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In light of tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid charged lunches by students and staff each school year, the Belen Board of Education voted 3-1 to amend its meal policy.

According to the new policy, students and staff will be allowed to charge up to five lunches. After that, they will be provided with a nutritionally balanced, but less expensive, substitute lunch.

Superintendent Ron Marquez said federal reporting requirements technically don't allow meals to be charged, but the district does acknowledge that, because of extenuating circumstances, students occasionally will be granted temporary credit for lunch.

Marquez said the type of substitute meal will be determined at the time of the student's sixth meal charge.

"In the district to the north, that's a cheese sandwich," Marquez said, referring to Albuquerque Public Schools' policy.

Board member Larry Lindberg said there was "a real hunger problem in this district," and gave several anecdotal examples of times he helped get lunches for students who, he says, would have otherwise gone without.

"I can tell you, I will not vote yes. I want to know what kind of meal they will get," Lindberg said. "We do need parents to be responsible and fill out the forms."

Board President Sam Chavez agreed with Lindberg's assessment of there being a "hunger problem" in the district.

"This is not an attempt to deny any child a meal. The substitute could be as simple as a cheese sandwich, peanut butter and jelly sandwich or another commodity," Chavez said.

Chavez reiterated that the policy would let students charge up to five meals.

According to the policy, each time a student charges a meal, parents will be contacted. When a student is given a substitute meal, after the fifth charge, parents will be sent an application for free or reduced lunches.

Parents of students who receive (substitute) meals for an extended period of time will be required to meet with the principal or another district administrator to discuss the student's situation to determine a plan to ensure the student receives proper nutrition, the policy says.

"I hope we have parents responsible enough to provide money for lunch or apply for the free or reduced lunches to see if they qualify," Chavez said.

Each year the district is faced with paying the debt of the uncollected lunch charges. According to federal law, the district has to make good on that debt. The money ultimately comes from the district's operational funds, shorting students, Chavez said.

Last year, at one point, the debt was $25,000. The district made a push to collect from students and their parents, as well as staff, and reduced the debt to around $17,000

"The cost of a meal is pretty minimal. This is several meals and in certain instances the parties were pretty blatant and chronic in charging meals," Chavez said.

Board member Lorraine Espinosa added that the students will be provided a meal that will be nutritional and contain all five food groups.

"No one will go without food," Espinosa said.

David Carter, the district's director of support services, pointed out the district offers free breakfast to all students.

"I have learned way too much about feeding kids over the last year," Carter said. "The alternate lunches will meet USDA requirements. It will simply be a meal that is a lower cost and less variety for those students with outstanding charges."

The changes to the meal policy passed 3-1 with Lindberg sticking to his guns as the one nay.

After the meeting, Marquez said if 85 percent of the students at a school qualify for free or reduced lunches, the entire student body gets lunches for free.

"We are trying to encourage everyone to fill out the applications to see if they qualify," he said. "If a parent knows they won't qualify, they can simply put their name, the students name and 'does not qualify' on the application."

Only four schools in the district haven't reached the 85 percent, Marquez said. They are La Merced Elementary School, Family School, Belen Middle School and Belen High School.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.