schools

Fort Bend ISD reporting over $38,000 in negative lunch accounts this year

During the pandemic the USDA gave Fort Bend ISD along with other districts waivers to feed all students for free. 

Houston Independent School District’s Nutrition Services announced that all students will eat meals at no charge during the 2018-2019 school year.

Fort Bend Independent School District said students have accumulated $38,138 worth of debt for breakfast and lunches in their schools cafeterias this school year.

During the pandemic – in 2020 and 2021 – the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gave Fort Bend ISD along with other districts waivers to feed all students for free.

Officials said the (USDA) notified school districts in June that waivers will no longer be available for the current school year. Fort Bend ISD Child Nutrition Executive Director Matt Antignolo said the federal government could have notified school districts a lot sooner.

“We’re waiting until late June, early July for the government to decide, ‘No, we’re not going to pay to feed everybody free’ or the reimbursement rate is going to be this or that," he said.

Fort Bend ISD began notifying parents around July 12, about the new changes and the district is struggling to get the debts paid. Antignolo said parents and their children got used to receiving a lot of resources during the pandemic.

"I think some of the challenge is that, wow, you know, my child has been eating free for two years, so I guess when August came around and school started, parents [might have] assumed that it was gonna continue," he said.

If the debt is not paid by the end of the school year – the school is responsible for paying that money back.

"If we have $38,000 in debt like we do today, the school district is responsible for writing our child nutrition program a check to cover those debts, because we’re dealing with federal grant funds," Antignolo said.

He said over the years, the federal government has issued new guidelines for the nutrition department when it comes to debt.

"The federal government doesn’t allow the Child Nutrition Department to carry bad debt from year to year," he said. "In the old days, if a school district Child Nutrition Department was profitable, we would kind of hit this magic easy button, and that negative debt would go away during the summer."

Antignolo said the Child Nutrition Department does not get any local tax dollars – the money comes from the meal prices.

"So your $1.21 school tax that you’re paying doesn’t help my department at all, that’s strictly general fund – teachers, you know, school operations," he said. "So we are expected to operate at a break even budget year after year."

Antignolo said meal services are back to pre-pandemic levels which means students who were classified as paid before the pandemic – are back to paying full price for breakfast and lunch. Due to the rising cost of food and labor, the district has raised its lunch prices by $0.25.

Fort Bend ISD charges $2.75 for elementary students lunches and $3 for secondary students. Depending on the age group of the student, the district does allow students to charge a certain amount of breakfast and lunch meals on their account.

"We allow five breakfasts and five lunches to be charged, before the student at that point receives what we call a courtesy meal, so no one goes hungry," Antignolo said.

He added that a courtesy meal is given to students for breakfast or lunch after students have reached a negative balance on their meal account so no child goes hungry at school. A breakfast and lunch courtesy meal in Fort Bend ISD consist of cereal, milk, or juice and maybe pancakes as a hot option.

Elementary student accounts are allowed to hit negative $23.75 and secondary students negative $25 dollars in which the districts then notify parents of the negative balances.

"During that time, you know, we’re trying to communicate with the families through our Blackboard messenger system managers [and] at the elementary level [send] home notices with the student, you know, ‘hey, take this home to mom and dad’ to notify families, that they do have a balance," Antignolo said.

In the past, Antignolo said after notices have been sent out, some parents pay the negative balance the next day, but there's some who's negative balance continues to increase.

He said the district has been working to notify parents about the changes along with whether they’re eligible for free or reduced lunches.

"What we have been doing now for the last five or six weeks is trying to really get the message out like ‘Hey Mom and Dad – there is help if you qualify.'”

Antignolo said some parents might have forgotten to fill out the application at the beginning of the school year because school meals have been free for almost two years.

"So now a student that was maybe free or reduced price prior to the pandemic, mom and dad were doing the application they qualified, therefore they got that benefit," he said. "They need to now start doing that, again, if they haven’t, or if they just kind of forgot, because they had a break for a couple years."

The district is also pushing for families who think they might not qualify or didn't qualify last year to apply for the free or reduced lunch program.

"Please complete that online to see if you do qualify to help, you know offset some of these expenses in our lives, you know with as we see the crazy inflation continue – everything gets more expensive," said Antignolo.

The free or reduced lunch program is based on students’ families and income size. Reduced students would pay $.30 for breakfast and $.40 for lunch in Fort Bend ISD. To apply, parents would log into their schools cafeteria site, create an account and apply, Antignolo said the process is pretty quick.

"You get your results very quickly," he said. "It’ll tell you reduced, free or denied.

Nearly fifty percent of Fort Bend ISD students are in the free or reduced lunch program and that's the highest Antignolo said he's seen in his three and a half years.

Fort Bend ISD has until the summer time before the new fiscal year to continue collecting money from the students. If by July 1, the balance still exists then the district would have to pay it.

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