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Free-school-lunch changes up for public review

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

The Clayton County school board may soon change its free-lunch policy, so students with unpaid lunch charges would be limited to eating basic lunches, without hot food.

The school board voted 8-1 last week to begin the process of changing the district's free-food-service policy to limit the amount of free food available to pupils who do not qualify for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's free-and-reduced-lunch program.

An administrative rule, which accompanies the policy change, sets up an alternative program for students who do not have money to buy a lunch. The alternative lunches would consist of milk, and either a salad with fruit, or a cheese or peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.

The board must still vote a second time on final adoption of the change.

"We're not going to let children, who can't pay because they can't afford it, or they forgot their lunch money, go without food," Nutrition Services Director Audrey Hamilton said. "They just are not going to receive the full meal."

The proposed change must be made available for a month, so the public can study it before it can come up for a final vote. The board is scheduled to hold a business meeting on April 13.

The policy will be on display today at local libraries, schools, and on the school system's web site.

"The benefit [of public inspection] is that the public can weigh in on the policy revisions, and as stakeholders ... provide their input and feedback as to the policy in general," said School System General Counsel Julie Lewis.

The change is in response to a debt of more than $110,000 from the existing policy of allowing free lunches to students without lunch money, regardless of whether they qualify for the free-and-reduced-lunch program.

Since August, Hamilton said, the school system's nutrition services department accumulated the debt by following the exiting policy. Hamilton said the size of the debt "mounts every day." On Monday, it was $112,000, she added.

The school system began sending charge letters (bills) home to parents of students with unpaid lunch charges in January, and school principals began reminding parents of the outstanding charges. Hamilton said those steps, along with media exposure of the debt, has resulted in the collection of $19,307.32.

Lewis said the chances of public input being utilized in the new policy depends on whether a suggestion complies with state and federal laws. "If we cannot implement a recommendation based on the law, then it will not be incorporated," Lewis said. "However, if it is something that we can incorporate into the policy, it makes sense, and it will make the policy a better policy, we will definitely include the recommended change."

Elementary school students, who do not have money to buy a lunch, can accumulate up to $6 in charges for full-service meals, which equals a week of lunches, before they have to begin taking the alternative meals, according to the proposed administrative rule. Charge letters will be sent home to parents on a weekly basis.

Under the rule, middle and high school students will not be allowed to charge meals, and will, therefore, automatically receive alternative meals if they do not have lunch money. Hamilton said the setup is similar to what is done in other metro-Atlanta school systems.

A traditional full lunch in Clayton County schools often includes main dishes such as teriyaki chicken, chicken parmesan, barbecue pork, spaghetti with meat sauce, fish and shrimp, taco bowls, and pizza. Side dishes typically include mashed potatoes, yogurt and French fries.

Hamilton said she hopes the no-frills nature of the alternative lunches will encourage parents to make sure their children always have money to pay for their lunches.

"There is something about peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches ... I don't know what it is," Hamilton said. "Parents tend to be more willing to keep their child's account up to date after their child comes home and says they had to eat a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich for lunch."

Hamilton pointed out that although a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich is one of the planned alternative meals, it will not be served until the U.S.D.A. lifts its recall on peanut-based products.

Comments about the proposed policy can be directed to School System Spokesman Charles White, who can be reached at (770)473-2735.

The policy will be made available for public inspection on the system's web site, www.clayton.k12.ga.us, and at the following locations:

· Clayton County Public Schools central administration complex, 1058 Fifth Ave., Jonesboro.

· Clayton County Public Library System's Headquarters Branch, 865 Battle Creek Road, Jonesboro.

· Clayton County Public Library System's Forest Park Branch, 696 Main St., Forest Park.

· Clayton County Public Library System's Jonesboro Branch, 124 Smith Street, Jonesboro.

· Clayton County Public Library System's Lovejoy Branch, 1721 McDonough Road, Hampton.

· Clayton County Public Library System's Morrow Branch, 6225 Maddox Road, Morrow.

· Clayton County Public Library System's Riverdale Branch, 420 Valley Hill Road, Riverdale.