About 80 families with school-age kids owe between $25 and $200 for unpaid school lunches.
The result: Halfway through the school year, the lunch program is short $7,000, the food services director told the School Committee.Given the schools' budget constraints, "$7,000 is a lot of money," School Committee member Jean McCartin said during a meeting Monday."It will be double that by June," Food Services Director Thomas Powers told her.It's part of the reason why the schools are changing their policy about handling children who show up for lunch without the money to pay for it.Beginning April 1, elementary and middle school students who forget their lunch money, and do not have any money on account, will be allowed to charge only three lunches and get the regular meal. Parents and principals will be notified of negative balances on Fridays.After that, children will be given an alternative lunch of a sunbutter (a peanut-free, sunflower-seed sandwich spread) or cheese sandwich, vegetable, fruit and milk.Students will receive the alternate for up to 10 days, and after that, if they fail to pay in full, they will not be able to get school meals. The food service department will notify parents they are responsible for sending their children to school with a lunch.Students will not be allowed to charge desserts, ice cream or snacks.At the high school, where students are not allowed to charge lunches, they must see the assistant principal if they do not have lunch money.The new policy does not extend to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, Powers said, and parents can apply for this program at any time if they are having a hard time making ends meet.A mailing to parents is planned in advance of the changes.Powers told the committee that parents are already being notified of low balances by e-mail."We've gotten comments from a few parents, 'Stop sending me e-mails constantly,'" Powers said. "They feel like they are a little bit bombarded."The ability to track student balances and unpaid meals is a result of new computer technology that the schools invested $15,000 in last year. The system tracks students by a PIN number and keeps track of balances better than the prior system, which tracked students' balances by hand."With the new system, it's blatant," Powers said.Students pay $3.45 for school lunch plus milk.