Schools vote no on eliminating reduced price lunches

The Cranston Herald ·

At the School Committee meeting held Monday, the Committee voted 6-1 to not eliminate the reduced price lunch option for Cranston students.

Ward 1 Representative Jeff Gale, who has been focused on the lunch shaming issue and the ever-increasing lunch debt in the district, introduced the resolution.

"In October of last year, CEAB was charged by the Superintendent to come up with ways that the district could recoup some of the money owed for unpaid meals for the school lunch program,” Gale said in an email. “I’m the School Committee representative to CEAB and worked with the members to come up with ways to recover some of the money which were presented to the Committee and the Superintendent.”

Gale went on to research ways to reach out to families who owed for unpaid meals.

"I developed ten suggestions which I shared with the Committee and Superintendent such as having the free/reduced application available online rather than just a paper version and having the application available in multiple languages,” he said. “During my research I found that school districts are able to pay the cost of what families pay who qualify for reduced lunch price (40 cents in Cranston). I saw this as having three direct benefits: easing the financial burden on families; reducing the administrative burden and cost for both the district and Aramark; and strengthening the school district’s operating budget.”

Gale feels strongly that the reduced fee could be put to better use for the families.

"The two dollars a week (or eight dollars a month) families qualified for reduced lunch pay may not sound like a lot but it can make a difference for a family whose budget is already tight,” he continued. “A family of three who makes less than $38,443 a year qualify for reduced lunch. For a single parent who has two children in Cranston schools, the $16 a month she/he does not have to pay could mean the difference between paying the electric bill or not.”

Gale also explained how the owed monies are reimbursed.

"For the district, paying the money for reduced families would have both direct and indirect financial benefits. In the 2016-17 school year, over 400 families owed almost $3400 for unpaid meals. This is money that must be covered by funds outside of the enterprise fund for the school meals program and come directly from the operating budget, taking away resources from other areas. Additionally, both the district and Aramark would be free from staying on top of the money owed by the over 400 families and result in more time being dedicated to other priorities and eliminating the direct cost of printing and mailing letters to these families," he wrote.

Gale saw the benefit of paying for reduced lunch as a way of getting more families to apply for free and reduced lunch.  

"The largest segment of families who owed for unpaid meals are families who pay full price for lunches at our schools,” he continued in the email. “Many of these families may qualify for reduced or free lunch but have never applied for a variety of reasons. This resolution only lasted for one year and my hope was that in that time families would see the benefit of applying if it would mean they would have more money to include in their family budget.”

Many members of the Committee raised the issue that paying for reduced lunch would decrease the financial guarantee Cranston Schools receive from Aramark and possibly reduce the substantial surplus they currently have in the enterprise fund for school meals.

"I certainly share the concerns of my colleagues but I thought this was worth doing for one year to see if it would help encourage more families to apply for free and reduced lunch. Any reduction in unpaid meals that, along with the $3,400 owed by reduced lunch families, means more dollars that we do not have to take out of the operating budget. That money ($3,400) would cover the line item for music supplies and materials at many of our schools for the next school year, freeing up money for other priorities. That’s a good enough benefit for me," Gale said.

Gale said he is going to be checking in periodically on the progress the district makes to increase outreach to families to apply for free and reduced lunch.  

"I may introduce the resolution next year after seeing the progress the district has made in outreach to families and if resolution is still a feasible solution," he said.

Ward 6 Representative Daniel Wall explained why he voted against the resolution.

"This effort does very little to solve the nearly $72,000 unpaid lunch debt as the vast majority of this debt comes from ‘paid’ lunch families,” he said. “Also, it requires us to take money from the enterprise fund. A fund that should be used for equipment related to the lunch program. Lastly, it is only a one year fix to an ongoing problem.”

Michael Traficante, Ward 5 representative, also voted no on the issue.

"When I arrived on the committee, the Cranston lunch program was in deficit by some $700,000. That is why as a Committee we decided to privatize the program, and form an enterprise fund forcing the program to become self sufficient," he said.

According to Joe Balducci, Chief Financial Officer for CPS, Sodexo first came to Cranston for school year 2010-2011. Aramark then came in for school year 2015-2016 and are currently still in the district.

Traficante went on to explain the current financial lunch situation.

"Once Sodexo came on board, it took almost four years to erase that deficit,” he said. “Presently, with Aramark we have generated a surplus to be used solely for food service operations. If we as a committee decide to start absorbing reduced lunch meals, over the years that will impact that surplus and eventually eat into it, thus less money for operations and equipment. For example, we are presently spending out of that surplus, about $100,000 to upgrade the cafeteria at Cranston East.”

School Committee Chairperson and citywide representative Janice Ruggieri gave some further background into the topic.

"This whole thing started because we asked Jeff as the CEAB representative to work with CEAB to find ways to help us recover the unpaid lunch fees that we are getting hit with each year. The numbers keep growing every year and the current letters and emails aren't working," she said in an email. “He presented this idea to us at the work session last week (May 9) with different numbers then the ones that were presented last night. I did not feel that spending $36,000 to recoup $3,500 made sense without trying to help increase participation in the free and reduced lunch program first. I asked him to instead work on increasing participation and we are also putting out an RFP for a collection company to help to recoup the funds from all of the unpaid lunches.”

She has not totally ruled out this as a possible idea down the line. 

"Once we have seen if the increase in participation has worked and if the RFP works then we can revisit this proposal. While I know the intent was good I don't feel that it was vetted properly in order to see what the fiscal impact really would have been based on the differing figures that we received," she said.