Pupils no longer charged for meals

Robert Smith rsmith@pawhuskajournalcapital.com

Pawhuska Public Schools officials said children attending Indian Camp Elementary School will not be required to pay this year for breakfast and lunch. Breakfast would have cost $1.80 each day and lunch would have cost $2.10, the district said.

Indian Camp serves pupils up through second grade.

“I’ve been able to do it in two different school districts and the impact on the community is just tremendous,” Superintendent David Cash said. He explained that the district narrowly missed being able to extend the non-priced meal approach to more of the Pawhuska district’s schools for the 2019-20 academic year. Once a school is qualified, it remains qualified for four years, he said.

The federal government legal authority under which Pawhuska Public Schools is making breakfast and lunch available at no charge to Indian Camp Elementary students is the Community Eligibility Provision of the National School Lunch Program. The CEP is specifically intended to help families in lower-income communities. School districts are reimbursed based on a funding formula.

The annual deadline for school districts to gather data needed for a determination of eligibility for CEP status is April 1. The Pawhuska school district starts gathering that data at enrollment, in late summer the previous year, by having parents fill out a form on which they provide information about homelessness. It may seem intrusive and even embarrassing to talk about, but the schools need the information to be able to determine if non-priced lunches can be offered school-wide or even district-wide.

“I know people get worn out with it, but there is a purpose,” Cash said. “It’s strange information; it doesn’t seem like it would fit in with food services.”

Cash said the Pawhuska district anticipates sending some surveys out in early October, and then sending out some more if it doesn’t get all of the first batch back.

Assistant Superintendent Beverly Moore said Pawhuska Public Schools uses data received from state child nutrition officials, data received from the Osage Nation Food Distribution Program, and from area families to help make the determination about CEP eligibility. The company that provides the district with food service helped to crunch data.

One of the problems the district can work to eliminate entirely if it is able to get more schools qualified is the thorny matter of unpaid meal bills.

Pawhuska Public Schools had more than $5,000 in unpaid meal charges for 2018-19 and it collects on those bills as it can. Cash said he thinks it is clear that the cause of the unpaid charges is household economic strain. Even if a child’s family has trouble paying for student meals, the school district ensures each student is fed.

But if the school district can get more of its schools qualified under the CEP, then there will be fewer and fewer families being charged for meals at the point of service.

Cash said there are also opportunities that would be available to Pawhuska Public Schools if more schools become qualified under the CEP. He mentioned, for instance, that some school districts offer early dinner meals for students before they go home.

“There’s lots of opportunities. It’s just that we have to get qualified first,” he said.