Shawnee Mission sees liability for unpaid meals grow after implementation of full-lunch-for-all policy

Board member Laura Guy asked for patrons to step up and help cover the negative account balances in the lunch program. File photo.

Four months after the district approved a policy guaranteeing a full meal to all students regardless of their lunch account balances, the Shawnee Mission School District has seen its liability for unpaid meals more than double.

Food Services Director Nancy Coughenour told the board of education on Monday that since the full meal policy went into effect on Nov. 1, negative account balances in the district had grown to $16,554. The tally for negative balances across the district on Nov. 1 was $6,066.

Prior to the enactment of the new policy, the district would allow elementary and middle school students to charge a limited number of meals to their account beyond their balance. After that, they were given a toasted cheese sandwich and milk instead of a full meal until they had money in their accounts again.

Board members said they thought the previous policy had a number of negative implications for the learning environment. Not only were children who didn’t get a full lunch hungry when they went back to the classroom, they felt singled out for their lack of ability to pay.

Laura Guy, the SM West representative on the board and a proponent of the full-meal-for-every-student policy, raised the alarm on Monday, saying the district would need the generosity of donations from patrons to keep the policy in place. The board had agreed to revisit the policy in April to see if it was sustainable.

“We had all the right reasons for doing this. So I want to encourage teachers and parents and the community to help us,” she said. “We don’t want to have to reverse this decision in April. But we have got to have a way to make this cost neutral.”

District leaders encouraged any family who might qualify for free-and-reduced lunch programs to fill out the paperwork to enroll, a move that could mitigate some of the issue.

Coughenour also told the board that a patron who has donated about $23,000 to cover negative lunch balances over the years had communicated to her that he and his wife were not comfortable with the new policy and would be reconsidering future donations.