Unpaid lunches take a bite out of budget

District sees $103,000 in student lunch debt after two months in school

Posted 11/22/22

Two months into the new school year and Cranston’s student lunch debt is rapidly increasing districtwide. According to Cranston Public Schools’ (CPS) Chief Financial Officer Joseph …

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Unpaid lunches take a bite out of budget

District sees $103,000 in student lunch debt after two months in school


Two months into the new school year and Cranston’s student lunch debt is rapidly increasing districtwide. According to Cranston Public Schools’ (CPS) Chief Financial Officer Joseph Balducci, lunch debt has reached $103,000 as of Nov. 10.

“If this trend continues, we’re going to be in some serious debt,” said Balducci, at the Nov. 14 School Committee meeting.

Across the country since March 2020, school lunches have been free thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Universal Free Lunch Program. This program ensured that students received free meals at school regardless of income since families were experiencing food insecurities during the pandemic. The program expired this past June followed by districts reaching out to families informing them that they would need to either apply for free or reduced meals in the coming year or go back to paying for lunches. Massachusetts was one of only a few states that passed legislation to continue providing free lunch for students.

Prior to free lunches for everyone, CPS averaged anywhere between $30,000 to $60,000 in lunch debt each year. Balducci said the number continued increasing and the district thought the value was significant enough to budget $200,000 in its operating budget to pay off the debt. The district originally budgeted $200,000 as part of the superintendent's proposed FY2021 budget, but this amount was the reduced to $100,000 as part of the final FY2021 budget. In the 2022 budget, this account was reduced to $0 dollars given that the Federal Government was allowing free lunches for all students.

According to Balducci, federal regulations say that the food service program cannot write off its own debt – resulting in the revenue source coming from somewhere else. Balducci said if this trend continues, at the end of the school year the debt could be $200,000 to $300,000. He said language in the federal regulation allows the district to carry that debt with the goal of reducing it as much as possible or eliminating it. He said he can carry the debt over from this year to next year.

CPS has approximately 10,708 students in its district and, this year, 3,638 students are receiving free or reduced lunch. Prior to the pandemic in 2019, 4,090 students received free or reduced lunch. Cranston High School West has the highest amount owed – coming in at $21,969 followed by Cranston High School East at $18,598. Stadium Elementary School owes the least – coming in at $861.

Ward 2 school committee member Kristen Haroian questioned if not enough families filled out the free and reduced lunch applications.

Knowing that the federal government’s exemption was expiring, Balducci said the district was proactive in getting word out about the applications. A message was sent weekly in the district’s Friday communications to parents and it was available on the district’s website. Additionally, Aramark representatives attended the school open houses to get word out.

“We have been trying to communicate in any way, shape or form that we possibly can through social media to let families know that it is no longer free and encourage them to fill out a free and reduced application,” said Alison O’Rourke, Food Service Director for Aramark.

O’Rouke added that the company sends weekly emails to families informing them of their account’s negative balance. She said the company receives a lot of calls assisting individuals on how to complete the applications and individuals can fill out a form at any point in the school year. She said sometimes the forms aren’t filled out to completion so Aramark calls families immediately so the applications can be processed. She said a big contributing factor is sometimes families do not qualify.

Citywide School Committee member Michael Traficante inquired if the district could use some of its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to pay off the debt. Balducci said he would have to check.

Ward 1 School Committee member Keith Catone wondered how many families who don’t qualify for free or reduced lunch understand that the district is charging for lunch again and if neighboring districts are facing similar challenges.

Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse spoke with Warwick Superintendent Lynn Dambruch and the Warwick School District’s current debt is $30,000. CPS is currently gathering data on how Cranston’s student lunch debt compares to neighboring/similar districts.

According to CPS, breakfast is universally free, but lunch costs $2.50 per day on the elementary level and $3.25 per day on the secondary level. The reduced price for lunch is $0.40 for lunch on a daily basis.

To qualify for free or reduced lunch, individuals must fit the following criteria:

-           All children in households receiving benefits from RI SNAP or RI WORKS

-           Foster children that are under the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court

-           Children who meet the definition of homeless, runaway, or migrant

-           Children whose household’s income is within the limits on the Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines; children may qualify for free or reduced price meals if your household income falls at or below the limits on this chart

Free or reduced lunch applications are only good for one school year and for the first few days of the new school year, so families have to reapply for the program each year. The district does not cut students off from receiving lunch if their bill reaches a certain amount; they will continue to receive whatever lunch items they choose.

Ward 3 School Committee member Domenic Fusco said the state is reporting over a $600 million surplus and referenced how Massachusetts included funding in its state budget for free lunch for public school students.

“I will continue and urge everyone here to reach out to your newly elected state officials. There’s no reason this should happen with the surplus the state is seeing,” said Fusco, adding that the state’s kids deserve better.

The district plans to monitor the student lunch debt situation by continuing to communicate with families who owe money.

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