Wake makes students who don’t have meal money take fruits and veggies. Is that unfair?

Wake County school leaders are promising a review of how they handle situations where students don’t have enough money to pay for meals.

The school board voted 5-3 on Tuesday to approve a 25-cent increase in breakfast and lunch prices for the 2024-25 school year. But during the heated discussion about the price increase, the board agreed to take another look at how students are given an alternative meal of just fruits and vegetables when they don’t have money in their meal account.

“Why do we ever turn food away from a child in our schools, and if we have to change policies can we please do so?” said board member Sam Hershey. “We just cannot do that anymore.”

The board’s policy committee could review the policy in June.

When students can’t pay for meals

The issue of how to handle students who can’t pay for their meals is a sensitive topic in schools across the nation. School meal programs are supposed to be self-supporting, but they have incurred huge debts because of unpaid meals.

It wasn’t an issue during the pandemic, when the federal government waived rules to provide free meals to all students in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. But that waiver ended last school year.

In Wake, students are not allowed to have a negative balance of more than three days of unpaid meals in their account.

If a student doesn’t have money, Paula De Lucca, senior director for Child Nutrition Services, said cafeteria cashiers are trained to handle the situation out of sight of other students.

She said cashiers are supposed to see whether the student has a sibling they can transfer funds from or whether they can ask a parent to electronically send more money to the account.

De Lucca said the cashier will also see whether the school has a money in an “Angel fund” to help cover meal costs.

If all those options are exhausted, she said they serve fruits and vegetables to the student instead.

But school board vice chair Monika Johnson-Hostler said cashiers often make quick decisions telling a student they can’t have the meal.

“If you talk about food waste, of course they’re throwing away the fruits and veggies,” Johnson-Hostler said. “We don’t heed an audit to tell you if I pick pizza and you gave me fruits and veggies it’s all going in the trash.”

Johnson-Hostler and board member Toshiba Rice said denying the regular meal stigmatizes those students.

Hershey said the current meal policy is punishing students. He said Wake should change the policy even if it costs the district a little more money.

Meal prices rising 25 cents

Prices will rise to $1.75 for breakfast and $3.50 for lunch in elementary schools. Prices in middle schools and high schools would rise to $2 for breakfast and $3.75 for lunch.

The price increase will not affect students who are eligible for a free or reduced-price meal. It also won’t affect the small number of Wake schools that qualify for a federal program where every student is eligible for a free meal.

School administrators cited rising costs for food and employee salaries for the meal price increase.

“The last thing I want to do is to raise prices on students and families because I know how very difficult it is,” Superintendent Robert Taylor told board members. “But I also understand that we have these kind of raises because the cost of business goes up, and that is the unpleasant part of this work.”

Board members Cheryl Caulfield, Lynn Edmonds and Johnson-Hostler voted against the price increase. They pointed to the impact it will have on families

Administrators said alternatives for raising meal prices included lowering food quality, cutting the number of cafeteria staff and taking money from the fund balance. But board chair Chris Heagarty cautioned against taking more money from reserves when they don’t know how much they’ll get this year from county commissioners.

“We have an obligation to keep this program solvent,” Heagarty said. “That is part of our responsibility as board members.”