TOPEKA — When Dan Smith’s 7-year-old daughter came home from school one day in December and told him a classmate had been denied a meal, he viewed the information as a red flag.
Under Louisburg USD 416′s policy, students who haven’t paid for lunches are given milk and a cheese sandwich once their balance owed reaches $10.
Lawmakers in the Senate Education Committee heard Wednesday from nutritional directors who addressed fears of children being shamed by alternative meals like the ones served in Louisburg, and how schools pay for food that must be balanced according to federal standards.
Smith responded to his daughter’s story by donating the money needed to pay balances owed by the six students in his district who were eating cheese sandwiches for lunch.
“We’re the breadbasket of this country,” Smith said. “I think everybody looks at us as being one of the better states in making sure we’re feeding our folks. If we can’t feed our own children in our schools, how are they going to get the education to become the leaders of our future?”
Cheryl Johnson, director of nutrition for the Kansas State Department of Education, led a wide-ranging discussion on school lunch policies. Local school boards set policy, she said, but the state encourages best practices.
Schools should avoid singling out any child receiving an alternative meal, she said. One solution is to bring a sack lunch to a student before a class is sent to the cafeteria, so it appears as though the child has brought a lunch from home. Another strategy is to solicit community groups to donate to a fund for unpaid meals.
“There are ways you can deal with this,” Johnson said. “You just have to plan ahead.”
Nutritional directors from Kansas City, Kan., and Spring Hill school districts said they provide a full meal regardless of a student’s balance. Joshua Mathiasmeier said Kansas City serves 30,000 meals per day and used $67,000 from the general fund to cover those who didn’t pay last year.
Unpaid meals for Spring Hill’s 2,900 students are addressed by a phone call from the principal to parents, said Jayci Dalton. Sometimes, she said, the principal discovers a family is eligible for free or reduced meals but was too embarrassed to ask.
Both districts offer as many fruits and vegetables as a child wants to eat, and Dalton said it is important for people to realize “all the great things” schools do to meet nutritional needs.
Johnson provided information about farm-to-school programs, a la carte options for athletes with higher caloric intakes, and modifications for students who are lactose intolerant.
Louisburg Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the committee’s chairwoman, expressed concern with inconsistencies in schools across the state. She directed Johnson to survey districts to find out how many are providing an alternative meal, with feedback on the nutritional content of those meals, as well as what schools are doing with leftover food.