The Aberdeen Public School District will be on the hook for some lunch money after a bill to cover the cost failed in Pierre.
House Bill 1042 would have paid the difference between the cost of reduced-price and free school lunches for students from low-income families.
While there’s support for the idea, local legislators don’t expect it will be revived this legislative session.
That means the Aberdeen school district will likely have to find more than $20,000 to pay the difference.
For two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all public school students nationwide received free meals.
“That was really a positive experience for all our students and our families, regardless of income,” Aberdeen Superintendent Becky Guffin said. “They didn’t have to worry about sending lunch money. It certainly saved families money, and then there was no stigma at all attached.”
She said the temporary change resulted in more students eating breakfast and lunch at school.
With that federal money now gone, it was estimated it would have cost $600,000 statewide to cover the difference between free and reduced-price lunches for qualifying students.
The bill would not have paid for the difference for all students.
“It was just that next tier of people who are working individuals that are still just struggling to make ends meet,” Guffin said.
Families with a household income between $25,636 and $36,482 qualify for reduced-cost school lunches.
In the Aberdeen school district, that number accounts for 9.3% of students. According to data from last year, 29.7% of students already receive free lunch, leaving about 61% of students paying full price.
“That (bill) could have just helped a lot of students across the state of South Dakota,” Guffin said.
Lunch debt higher than it’s ever been in Aberdeen
The Sioux Falls Public School District was on track at the beginning of December to hit $400,000 in unpaid meal debt by the end of the school year, according to an article by The Dakota Scout.
Sioux Falls then implemented a new policy, turning away any student with $75 in school lunch debt and giving those with $20 in debt only a milk and snack for lunch. No student with school lunch debt can receive breakfast.
Guffin said the Aberdeen school district will not turn kids away if they need a meal.
Not surprisingly, the bill is far smaller in Aberdeen.
As of the end of December, the Aberdeen district had incurred $14,000 in lunch debt. If the spring semester continues along that trend, the district will have between $20,000 and $30,000 in lunch debt at the end of the school year.
Guffin said that’s substantially higher than it’s ever been.
Fortunately, she said, there are generous donors in the community who help offset some of the debt.
Any amount not covered, though, will have to come from the district’s general fund.
“Unfortunately, we do still have a segment of individuals that do not pay their lunch bill,” Guffin said. “And that does become an expense on the school district, which takes away from other programs and things that we have to offer students.”
Families who spend money on non-essential items instead of school lunches is one reason HB1042 failed.
The debt amount the district ends up having to pay each year fluctuates depending on both donors and parents who make payments at the end of the school year. Guffin said it’s hard to quantify because lunch is a pay-as-you-go type of situation.
Small area districts not as affected by lunch debt
The superintendents in Frederick and Warner said their school districts, which are substantially smaller than Aberdeen’s, are not as affected by lunch debt.
“We’ve never really had an issue with that for the most part,” Frederick Superintendent Jeff Kosters said. “We get donations from individuals periodically to help cover some of those types of things.”
Warner Superintendent Michael Kroll said that while he supported the proposal, only a small percentage of Warner students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“It’s a little bit of a touchy subject for some people because they don’t want to necessarily stand out,” Kroll said.
Warner’s occasional lunch debt is typically the result of people simply forgetting to pay or paying late, he said.
“Certainly some small school districts are going to have a higher percentage of students who qualify (for reduced-cost lunches) than others, and those are the ones that would have appreciated it the most — making sure those kids are getting the meals that they need,” Kroll said.
Qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunches
Guffin encourages people to fill out an application for free or reduced-cost lunches, even if they’re not sure if they qualify. The form is available online or in person at all public schools in Aberdeen and the district office. It can be filled out at any time during the school year.
“It’s really quite simple. It’s not overly burdensome, and we do have it available in other languages,” Guffin said.
Families that qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, referred to as TANF, go through a certification process, so those people don’t need to do any extra paperwork.
Guffin said there could be other ways to determine who can receive free or reduced lunches, like adding direct certification through programs like Medicaid.
“But the state has declined to do that,” Guffin said. “We could help more kids if we wanted to.”
Expanded lunch menu offerings popular with students
The district switched to Lunchtime Solutions for food service management three years ago and, Guffin said, that has been popular with students, resulting in more of them eating at school.
There is an unlimited fruit and veggie bar and more expanded menu offerings. The elementary schools have two daily entrée choices, the middle schools four and Central High School eight.
“I think it’s also helping participation because we want (students) to like what they’re eating,” Guffin said. “It’s been a really great transition for us.”
She said the district has been able to save money since switching providers, but that is a secondary benefit.
“That isn’t the primary purpose of it. The primary purpose is to feed kids and for kids to have healthy meals that they enjoy,” Guffin said.
“What happens behind the scene, as far as how much the hamburger costs versus how much a hot dog costs, is not a concern of mine or the kids,” she continued. “They (Lunchtime Solutions) take care of all of that, which is awesome.”
School lunch expected to return next year
Guffin is a member of the South Dakota School Lunch Coalition that proposed HB1042. It was sponsored by state Rep. Kadyn Wittman, D-Sioux Falls, and state Sen. Michael Rohl, R-Aberdeen.
The bill was defeated in committee by a single vote, but that’s not to say it won’t return next year.
“I fully expect it will come back again,” Guffin said. “The issues are not going away.”
Rohl and others hinted at that during the first legislative coffee in Aberdeen on Saturday, Jan. 27.