‘One more toasted cheese sandwich is one too many’: Shawnee Mission school board guarantees full lunch for all students regardless of account balance

Food Services Director Nancy Coughenour told the board the policy change would likely make Shawnee Mission the first district in the state to guarantee a full lunch to students.

The Shawnee Mission School District will become the first in the county to guarantee students a full meal at lunch regardless of the balance in their lunch accounts after the board of education unanimously approved a policy change Monday.

Previously, students who did not have enough money in their lunch accounts to pay for a full meal were given a toasted cheese sandwich and a milk in lieu of a full meal. The sandwich and milk were provided to the student free of charge. But members of the board had concerns that the policy made those students stand out among their peers in the lunch line, and that giving students less than a full meal could harm their chances for learning effectively in the classroom.

“Food impacts a child physically. And we’ve always been talking about how we can help children learn. And I believe this is a piece of the puzzle to help children learn,” said SM Northwest area representative Patty Mach. “In my opinion one more toasted cheese sandwich is one too many.”

Laura Guy, the SM West representative who has been a vocal proponent of the policy, said it put the needs of students ahead of other considerations.

“I think we need to put the needs of our students first,” Guy said. “And I think our students need a good lunch so that they have the fuel they need to be at their best for the rest of the school day.”

Nancy Coughenour, the district’s director of food service, said Monday that no other Johnson County district guarantees students a full lunch meal.

Coughenour estimated that it will take approximately a month to communicate the policy change to food services staff and train them on implementing it. She expects it to have fully gone into effect sometime in November.

Cost impact will be a ‘calculated risk’

Board members and staff acknowledged that they had little way to project how the policy change would affect the district’s finances — but said the district had a moral imperative to make the change.

The implementation of a similar policy in Denver led to a ballooning of liability for unpaid lunch debts from around $13,000 to $365,000 in a single year — a case study that had given some members of the board pause last month. But administrators said they were committed to keeping a close eye on how the policy was playing out on a monthly basis, and noted that the board could retract or amend the policy at any time.

The language of the measure approved by the board Monday indicates the intent to keep the policy in place through at least this school year and to review it for renewal in April.

Parents whose students’ balances go negative will be contacted quickly by the district as they work to get the account brought into good standing. And unpaid lunch debt will be put through the same collections procedures that the district uses for unpaid book rental fees.

“This is a calculated risk — one that we will be extremely vigilant on to make sure that it’s doing what we want it to do,” said Rick Atha, assistant superintendent for operational support. “And we’re going to make every effort to collect early on from our families that have the ways and means to pay.”

But the district will also be using contacts made for unpaid lunch debt as a way to encourage more families who might qualify to fill out the paperwork for free-and-reduced lunch programs. Atha noted that not only does increasing enrollment in federally-subsidized free-and-reduced lunch programs help ensure more students are getting the food they need, it also increases the funding the district receives.

“We’re obligated [to increase lunch program enrollment] for two reasons,” Atha said. “One, it’s the right thing to do. And number two, in reference to free lunch students, our at-risk funding spins off from our free lunch counts.”

Mach upset by suggestions on social media that members who questioned policy didn’t care about kids

SM Northwest representative Patty Mach said she was dismayed by suggestions that anyone on the board didn’t care about kids.

Following the unanimous vote to approve the policy change, Patty Mach used the board comments section of the agenda to chide those who had publicly questioned the motives of board members who had raised questions about the fiscal impact of the policy at their last meeting.

“I read some of the comments on social media, and I was really dismayed at some of the things that were said out there,” Mach said. “And i just wanted to state publicly that every single member of this board of education cares about children. And for anyone to even suggest that they don’t is absolutely ridiculous.”