Gifford Acknowledges Information Lacking On Lunch Program

The School Committee chairwoman stands by panel’s new “cold cheese sandwich” policy, but says the school department needs to do a better job informing parents on the payment protocol.

The School Committee’s decision last Tuesday after they have already received three hot lunches with no money on account has pointed up some confusion surrounding the prepay lunch program.

Some parents (including this reporter) were completely unaware that all school children from first grade through high school are able to, essentially, “charge” lunch. According to school officials, students are given an i.d. number that stays with them through their school years. At lunchtime, if they choose to buy lunch, they punch in their number on a key pad that sits next to the cashier. Then they either pay for their lunch with cash or the cost of lunch is deducted from money a parent has deposited in an account. (A video of a few transactions is attached at right.)

According to Aramark, the food service company for East Greenwich, children who punch in their number and have no money and no prepay account will still get a lunch. Parents who do not want their child to buy lunch or want to place limits on how much they can order can, through the NutriKids website, put those prohibitions in place. However, several parents said that until the story surfaced last week, they were not aware they could do that.

“I just logged in to Nutrikids and looked around,” wrote Sue W. . “There is a setting that you can change to send you an alert via email when you reach a dollar amount balance that you choose. Who knew?”

“This has been a very important lesson,” said School Committee Chairwoman Deidre Gifford Friday. “We can do a better job of communicating with families.”

The School Committee decided to establish the “cold cheese sandwich” practice because some students owed as much as $100 for lunches. The policy does not affect those children who receive free or reduced-cost lunches.

For the rest of the student population, hot lunches cost $2.25 in the elementary schools, $2.50 at Cole Middle School and $2.75 at EGHS. There are extras that students can buy at Cole and EGHS, such as chips, ice cream and juice drinks. And students at any of the schools whose parents have signed up to prepay can buy more than one lunch.

Students are told by cashiers when their account is running low, except at Meadowbrook and Frenchtown, where employees are not allowed to tell students when their account is low or empty. According to Aramark’s Kelly McKeon, assistant food manager for East Greenwich, that sort of decision is made by individual building principals.

But, she said, that could be the reason that one elementary school, in particular, has a high deficit. “There is no connection between the cashier and the students about talking about balances or anything like that,” she said, declining to name the school.

NutriKids allows parents of any student who buys lunch, regardless of how its paid for, to track what their children eat, if they choose to look. And they can put limits on how much a child can spend. McKeon said, for instance, that a parent at Cole just contacted her about putting a $5 limit on how much her child could spend at lunch.

McKeon said that Aramark sent information about the lunch program home with students in September.

The events of the past week, however, have convinced the School Committee’s Gifford that a more concerted effort needs to be made to inform parents.

“Parents do have a responsibility to monitor the balance, she said, but “the district definitely needs to do a better job. We also want to make very sure that any family who had a change in financial circumstances or if they have a balance that they’re struggling to pay, to talk to the school principal and set up a payment schedule.”

La Dolce Vita December 12, 2011 at 03:21 PM
This is what happens with outsourcing - you loose control. There's a lot of gray area as to who is responsible for what, and how it's all communicated. If Aramark has the program, it's their responsibility to collect the funds, however I haven't seen the contract. When it comes to kids having lunch, especially at Frenchtown and Meadowbrook, kids should not go the day without lunch. Families get busy, kids run out the door, 'borrow' the money for lunch. There was better control, and better service when the district had the program, and I bet there was less of a deficit.
Spring Street December 13, 2011 at 10:44 AM
Now this is shocking in reviewing this matter I discovered the RI Dept. of Human services forwards the names of any child whose family receive any state benefit to the schools !!! How horrible , a real violation of privacy. Other Northern states had done this until the ACLU stopped the practice. Now unfortunately some who are negative about anyone receiving help will attack. Remember these are hard times,homes foreclosed,highest unemployment etc. Plus the minimum wage = slave labor. Years ago Nixon stopped the increments as they were to be raised and cut them, if he hadn't then it would be $14.50 hrly a living wage . Howard Hughes put Nixon in office and Nixon covered his backers Big Business not having to pay employees a decent wage ! Then we went to two heads of house working,latch keys children and crime increased. When the child's name is released he or she become automatically labeled ! If the parent applies for the free lunch program then they provide documentation of income. Many don't thinking their protecting the child's privacy. Lil' do they know it was already breached ! Disgraceful ! Remember : There, but for the Grace of God, go I
Jen C. December 13, 2011 at 12:34 PM
1)we went to an outside lunch provider was because we were loosing money every year when it was in house 2) how is "please tell your parents they need to add money to your lunch account, it's getting low." humiliating? It can be said in a very low key way that gives a low balance heads up without a big deal being made. 3)children buying lunch have an option of 2 hot lunches, a salad, a sandwich of the week or a sunny butter&jelly sandwich. Unless the adults in their lives, us, make a big deal of it, the addition of cheese sandwiches to the lunch tray possibilities will not be given a second thought.
Jen C. December 13, 2011 at 12:36 PM
4)children aren't being denied lunch&made to go hungery, they are given a sandwich, fruit&milk if their parent does not put money on their lunch account. It sounds like a reasonable way to provide for the individual student while managing costs 5)it looks like the schools need to send out more information abt the services available for managing lunch accounts so everyone knows about& knows how to use the email alerts & limit setting options. 6)being able to put money on account is so much easier and more convenient than having to send in money with the child on a daily, weekly or montly basis as we had to do when I started in the EG schools (which is still an option), lets figure out how to make this work for everyone
Sue W December 14, 2011 at 04:01 AM
Jen C. I agree with some of what you have listed for us uneducated "Nutrikids users." A reminder email from the schools would have been helpful before time, energy and lawyer money was spent drafting the "cold cheese sandwich policy." When the problem of outstanding accounts occurred, I'd expect the administration and school committee to ask why isn't this new program working? It's simply not practical to ask children to tell their parents they owe money. Do you expect the oil man delivering oil to tell you that your owe last month's bill? Does the lawn guy tell you that you owe the boss 3 lawn cuts? I don't check to see what my kids eat at school- I ask them. (They didn't know they were being charged an extra $1.50 for fruit.) I have enough trouble keeping up with their grades and homework! What I find silly is that it takes a school committee policy and media embarrassment to draw attention to the fact that most parents simply don't know the new system. The fact that so much energy has been spent discussing lunches in this educational climate is what is embarrassing and downright ridiculous. Personally, I'll never miss a payment again. I've figured out how to receive email alerts. My child will never tell me again, "Mom, today's the 3rd day the lunch lady has yelled at me in front of everyone because you didn't put money into my account." It's not about cheese sandwiches, it's about communication and respect. It's about focusing energy on student learning.


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