Missoula County Public Schools Expect More Student Debt After Lunch Price Hike | Local News

At the start of this school year, Missoula County public school students had more than $42,000 in outstanding lunch balances, all of which predated the COVID pandemic.

That number came as no surprise to Stacey Rossmiller, the district’s food and nutrition services supervisor.

“That number is actually pretty good for me, believe it or not,” Rossmiller said. “We’ve had close to $100,000 in outstanding debt for a few years.”

School meals were free for students across the United States for two years during the pandemic thanks to a federal waiver that expired over the summer, but the debts remained.

Outstanding meal balances follow a student through their time in the district until graduation, and can be a barrier to earning a high school diploma.

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“It’s kind of a scary situation that some families find themselves in, having debt associated with their public school experience,” said Kelli Hess, acting executive director of the Missoula Food Bank.

At MCPS, about half of meal debt is held by high school students. Hellgate High School has the highest exceptional meal sale in the district, at around $7,800.

About a quarter of the unpaid meal balances are made up of students attending Title I schools in the district. Title I is a federal education program that provides financial support to schools that have high rates of low-income families; seven MCPS schools participate in the program.

“We would never tell a student they can’t eat and we know that can mean some of those kids are going to rack up sales,” Rossmiller said.

Each student would owe the district about $4.83 if the debts were spread evenly, but only about 15% of enrollees have outstanding meal balances ranging from pennies to hundreds of dollars, according to Rossmiller.

One of the reasons students run up meal debt is because their family hasn’t returned a request for free and reduced meals through the National School Lunch Program, a federally funded program that provides meals at low cost or free to children at school.

But many families are struggling to afford meals, even at the reduced district rate of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch.

“This reduced meal lineup is really hard to fit in because they’re making too much money to qualify for free meals, but not enough money to be in paid status,” Rossmiller said.

The Missoula County Public Schools Board discusses possible changes to breakfast programs on July 19, 2022.

This year, Rossmiller is pushing hard for all families to complete the National School Lunch Program application, as this is the first school year in two years that students have to pay for food, and meal prices in the district are more expensive than they were. before.

“The worst that can happen is you don’t qualify, the best that will happen is it will benefit you and your children,” Rossmiller said.

Over the summer, the board approved a price increase of 25 cents. K-5 students now pay $2 for breakfast and $3 for lunch; those between grades 6 and 12 pay $2.25 for breakfast and $3.25 for lunch.

The district is continuing its Classroom Breakfast Program, where all students in kindergarten through eighth grade are eligible for free breakfast.

“We’ll see a drop in participation and we’ll see an increase in outstanding balances,” Rossmiller said of the price change. “But that being said, I have also seen an increase in the number of applications (for the National School Meals Scheme) coming in.”

Although Rossmiller anticipates a drop in attendance for the district meal program, the Missoula Food Bank has seen a significant increase in need for its services, while food prices are also on the rise.

When the food bank moved to its new location five years ago, it was serving approximately 1 in 6 people in Missoula County; now that number is closer to 1 in 4.

“Let me tell you, running a food bank right now is more expensive than ever,” Hess said. “It’s so real for us too. It’s more expensive for us to have peanut butter on our shelves. It’s more expensive to have all the food right now.

Local food bank focuses child nutrition efforts on times when students are out of school and partners with more than 20 after-school programs to provide nutritious snacks, among other partnerships . They have also set up “Empower Packs” containing several food products which are distributed to certain students for the weekend.

Additionally, during the summer and during school vacations, the food bank helps operate food sites throughout the community as well as a meal bus that delivers food to the most food-insecure neighborhoods. Last summer, the food bank distributed 63,000 meals, 6,000 more than the previous year.

Last spring, the food bank donated more than $5,000 to cover the outstanding meal balances of each graduating MCPS graduate.

After the school year began, some members of the community banded together and raised enough money to clear the lunch balances at Jeanette Rankin and Franklin Elementary Schools and had enough to pay down Lowell’s debts.

“It’s unbelievable that some generous members of the community are going after them and paying these balances. It’s pretty awesome that we were able to step in and do this, but the charitable response to paying past balances can’t be the answer,” Hess said. “It is not possible.”

Instead, she thinks universal free student meals are the solution to the problem.

California, Maine and Vermont have launched programs offering all students free meals before the start of the school year. A Pennsylvania school district recently canceled all student meal debts.

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