A nutritious orange, art by Benny Blue

At the Nov. 30 Roaring Fork School District (RFSD) Board of Education meeting, RFSD Chief Financial Officer Nathan Markham said the district has, since the beginning of this school year, incurred a deficit of more than $40,000 in student meal debt.

During Markham’s presentation of the quarterly financial report, he cited that the district’s food service fund, for the first quarter ending Sept. 30, received $88,000 in revenue, with a majority of those funds coming from federal meal reimbursements for those qualifying for free and reduced-price school meals.

Some board members said possible confusion over meal payment could stem from the fact that during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services instituted a program that reimbursed school districts that provided free meals to all students, regardless of their family income. That free meal program expired at the end of June 2022.

“The food service team has been working to notify families of their obligation to pay to slow this deficit,” stated Markham.

Board Vice President Jasmin Ramirez explained that for some families, the hardship is genuine. “This is a real lived experience where a lot of our families are experiencing food insecurity.”

According to data from Feeding America, a national nonprofit with a network of more than 200 food banks, one in nine children in Colorado faces hunger and food insecurity. “Clearly, our children need to have breakfast and lunch whenever it’s available to them,” Ramirez concluded.

With school meals offered at no cost for the past two years, Board Member Kenny Teitler entertained another possibility for non-payment of meal accounts, saying, “I’m curious of how much of it is an inability to be able to pay, or how much of it is they haven’t tried to pay because they didn’t think they had to pay.”

Another factor is that free and reduced-price applications must be submitted every school year. Teitler and Markham suggested following up with parents to encourage them to reapply for free and reduced-price school meal benefits.

Board Secretary Natalie Torres said, “It’s hard to engage the level of income to qualify for free and reduced meals. It still doesn’t mean you’re able to get by in a very high cost of living environment in town and community, right? It may be, ‘My income is not reflective of my ability to provide food for my kid. I would love to find more information because I don’t qualify [for benefits].’”

Student lunch debt will become a moot point with the passage of Colorado 

Proposition FF, approved by voters in the November election, which reimburse school districts for providing free school meals, beginning in the 2023-24 budget year.

Jeff Gatlin, RFSD chief operating officer, said, “Hopefully, this year is the last year we will be looking at student meal debt like this.”

Gatlin said one needed data point is how many families started the 2022-23 school year not on free/reduced lunch status and were being charged the full price for meals but then completed an application. Letters sent to families with student meal debt requesting payment also explain how to access the application form if they are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Markham assured board members the district would continue working on recouping the debt and ask parents to make payment arrangements.

Free and reduced-price school meal applications, available in English and Spanish, can be accessed through the district’s Parent Portal or the Roaring Fork Schools website (www.bit.ly/RFSDfreelunch). Application information is confidential and never shared with any agency. The form also provides additional information for applicants who may qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.