Port Townsend schools carrying meal debt

Program aims to make food accessible to all

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The Port Townsend School District is carrying a debt in its meal program to keep its students fed.

Superintendent John Polm reported that, as of the start of November, 117 families were in debt to the school district’s meal program, adding up to about 10 percent of the district’s enrollment.

Polm said the average of those who are in debt is $15.20, which adds up to $685 of meal debt for Salish Coast Elementary, $423 for Blue Heron Middle School, $5 for OCEAN and $665 for Port Townsend High School.

PT Schools Food Services Director Stacey Larsen and Amy Khile, director of finance and business operations for the district described meal debt as commonplace, both across the state and the country as a whole.

“In schools across the state, there’s been an increase in meal debt,” Khile said. “Lots of families may qualify for free and reduced-price meals who simply aren’t completing the forms.”

Larsen noted more than 50 percent of Port Townsend students qualify for free and reduced-price meals and touted the “big push” of outreach the school district had made, including sending letters home, to get any families who are eligible signed up for the program.

“We want to make it as easily accessible as possible,” Larsen said. “We want everyone to eat.”

Larsen pointed out how many other service programs in East Jefferson County receive support due to the percentage of students who receive free and reduced-price meals.

“We don’t want a situation where those needed services aren’t available,” Larsen said. “When we sent mailers out to our families about the free and reduced-price meal program, we got a great response.”

Nonetheless, when Larsen attended a national conference of school officials, she heard from a district in Milwaukee that was $50,000 in meal debt.

“School meal debt is not uncommon,” Larsen said. “We’re not alone on this.”

Larsen emphasized the Port Townsend School District is still striving to get any remaining eligible families signed up for free and reduced-price meals, in part by tapping community resources such as Jefferson County Public Health and Dove House Advocacy Services.

“We realize some people might be uncomfortable giving out personal information such as their income levels,” Larsen said. “We want them to know that information does not wander. It’s locked away. We take your privacy very seriously.”

Before those families’ applications are fully processed, Larsen acknowledged they do incur meal balances, which cannot be retroactively covered by the free and reduced-price program.

“That’s where we often turn to donations from the public to cover the gap,” Larsen said. “We can’t just make that debt zero, but, through the generosity of others, we can cover it.”

Larsen outlined the primary priority of the school district’s food service program as ensuring that students stay fed, regardless of the cost.

“We’re not going to turn kids away,” Larsen said. “We want them to eat, no matter what. If they’re not nourished, they can’t pay attention in class. A good breakfast and lunch allow kids to learn and play sports, and free and reduced-price lunches take the burden off families who might otherwise have to choose between those meals and electricity or water.”

Even if families have applied for free and reduced-price meals and been turned down, Larsen encourages them to apply again if circumstances have since changed.

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