Richland Two considers ways to address its meal debt after parents raise concerns about email

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Published: Aug. 29, 2022 at 8:49 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Richland School District Two is considering ways to address its student meal debt.

This comes following an email that mistakenly went out to parents last week detailing an outdated practice that said students with more than $10 in meal debt may be denied food.

Richland Two Superintendent Dr. Baron Davis apologized for the error and said that the email was sent inadvertently from the communications department.

While it was a practice in the handbook, Davis said it was not enforced.

“I’m not saying it never happened, but that was not the regular practice,” Davis said.

Students were not, and will not be, denied food, regardless of their debt status, he added.

“We have thrown food away,” Davis said. “No student has had their meals taken from them and thrown in the trash can. We don’t do that practice and if someone does do that, we’ll address that individual appropriately in our school district.”

Richland Two, the state’s fifth-largest school district, has since removed that language from the handbook to avoid any confusion.

For the past two years, all students were provided free meals due to a U.S Department of Agriculture waiver, which has since expired.

Prior to the pandemic, elementary and middle school students in Richland Two were allowed to have meals regardless of whether they qualified for free or reduced-price meals.

Davis has now put a moratorium on the debt threshold for high school students, as well.

The tough task for the district moving forward, according to Davis, is determining whether it plans to cover all debt for those students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meal benefits or work with parents who do not qualify to ensure their children get fed.

As for addressing its debt going forward, Davis said all options are on the table.

The timeline on when a final decision on meal debt could be made is unclear at this point, Davis said.

“If we decide not to cover all debt we need to have a strategy in place to work with our families on payment plans and alternative plans for those who don’t qualify for free and reduced lunch, but still have some sort of financial hardship,” Davis said. “And I think that’s where the real work is.”

Davis said that could potentially come in the form of debt forgiveness.

He said a meal debt collection account has already been set up, where people from the community can donate to help the district offset some of its meal costs.

According to Richland Two Chief Operations Officer Will Anderson, the district currently has about $100,000 in pre-COVID-19 meal debt.

As district leaders consider how to handle the meal debt situation, parents are encouraged to fill out the Meal Value Plan to determine whether children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Davis described this as a “lunch application blitz.”

“I would say to our high school parents who have high schoolers, to please again, complete the forms to make sure that if you qualify you receive the appropriate assistance.”

Parents who do not qualify should reach out to the district, Davis said.

“If for some reason you don’t qualify and you need assistance, in a very private way we can work with you to ensure that your son and daughter is properly nourished while at school,” he said. “But it will take a partnership and an effort on you letting us know what your challenges may be.”

Some parents believe covering the cost of all meals should be considered.

“I believe where there’s a will, there’s a way,” Cordell Brown, who has three children in Richland Two, said. “I do believe there’s a way for us to collectively come up with a good solution for it. We have all these leaders in place, they’ve been hired for their positions to be able to exhaust different options to make it a feasible place for all of our students and I think we need to look into this further.”

According to district officials, if it were to pay for all the meals of students who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals, that cost could be around $2.4 million annually.

That money would likely have to come from the district’s general fund, Davis said.

Brown said he has frustrations with the district given the communication that went out to families last week.

“When I got that email, I was appalled,” he said. “That was severely infuriating to me because it doesn’t speak of what we should do in America. We’re sending aid to other countries and we’re talking about on our side of the land that we’re going to dispose of a perfectly good meal.”

Brown said he is glad that changes are being made, and the district must be supported in its efforts to find the best way to manage its meal debt while also ensuring that all students are fed.

Richland Two is treating the email and the surrounding conversation about meal debt as a “growing opportunity,” Davis said.

Davis had not reviewed the email before it was sent to parents, he said.

“We should make sure that all communications that are district-wide are either approved by myself, my deputy, or my senior chief communications officer,” he said.

Richland School District One qualifies for the federal Community Eligibility Provision, which reimburses schools for all meals provided to students.

Only four elementary schools in Richland Two currently qualify for this program.

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