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Gwinnett County schools free meal program not so free at the moment – where’s the money going?

Posted by mandyf on August 17, 2011

Photo by: Beau Wade

In Georgia, Gwinnett County schools are having a slight problem with their paperwork regarding the free meal program. While school food is often the stuff of jokes, there is nothing funny about students that should be receiving free meals having to pay for those meals. In a worst case scenario, that may mean a student is potentially not getting three meals a day. While not all students receive free or reduced rate meals at school, about 73,000 do. A question has been raised regarding this by a reader of my Dunkin’ Donuts post that felt there was a bigger food issue in the area I should look at – “- Where does all the money go?” She is right, where does it go?

I began digging around hoping to find a concrete answer to what is, in my opinion,  a simple question.  After being directed back and forth between one website or another, none giving me an answer, I began to wonder more myself. Then it hit me – do they really want to fix this issue quickly – as they kept saying they do.

While the paperwork associated to the free meal program is now a week and a half overdue being processed, students that should be receiving free or reduced rate meals are being charged full price for them. If they do not have the money to pay for them, the children are being sent home with a bill for their parents and instructions regarding how to pay the “debt” they never should have incurred along with instructions regarding how to load the child’s meal pay account with the school. For a student that eats lunch and breakfast, that’s either $3.25 or $3.50 per day depending on what level of school the child is in.

In Gwinnett County public schools, approximately 180,642 meals are served each day based on SY11 statistics provided at the Gwinnett County schools website. Approximately 73,000 students (Our rounded DOWN baseline) receive free or reduced rate meals. Statistics are not provided to break down how many fall in each category. Working with the figures they provide, we can safely estimate  that around 109,000 meals per day are free or reduced rate.

That extrapolation is extraordinarily generous based on the following reason. Since no statistics are provided to the public which can be readily retrieved that state how many breakfasts served go to students that receive free or reduced rate lunches, the figure of 36,000 students was assigned to round out the daily meal total. That assumes that half of the kids eating breakfast at school are paying full price for it – which is a HUGE stretch anyone around the school cafeteria line each morning can tell you. Therefore, the estimate is likely low – but conservative will work just fine for this analysis.

Here is where things get interesting. Let’s use a family with three kids in school as our example – two in elementary school and one in middle school. Usually the kids would receive free lunch (for our example), which is three lunches per day ($6.25) over 5 days totals $31.25. If they eat breakfast at school twice per week, add in another $7.50 for a total of $39 per week or $156 per month. For people that couldn’t afford the meals in the first place, that is a lot of money to shell out. Granted, they have to get paperwork processed long before it hits one month of lagging, but that is what a family in need in a bad economy would face.

That prompted me to wonder…. How much money is going into the schools while “paperwork is being processed” that is not a part of their budget?  I mean, they can’t actually have planned to have this windfall in their coffers even short term, right? Let’s be generous again and say that of the 73,000 students receiving free or reduced rate lunch, it breaks down to 21,900 (30%) receiving reduced rate meals and 51,100 free meals. Meal rates were averaged for the following study.

51,100 Free lunches at an average of 2.125/meal =  $108,587.50 per day
21,900 reduced rate lunches at $1.77 = $37,777.50 per day

25,200 Free breakfasts = $31,500 per day
10,800 reduced rate breakfasts  = $10,260 per day

Each day, that totals $188,125!  Over the course of the first week of shuffling paperwork, that adds up to $940,625. To the time of going live with this article, the total would now be $1,505,000.00 based on those numbers – give or take. It is a valid question to ask – where does all this money go?

Will the schools send each child home with a refund check for their parents to cover the money they never should have had to shell out? Will They make a meaningless gesture of crediting each student’s meal pay account so the money gets funneled right back into the school rather than back to the parents who must obviously need it for their child to qualify for assistance at all? If money is placed in the child’s account, a refund can be requested, but how likely is the request to be honored under these grounds?

What people, myself included now more than ever, really want to know is what is going to happen to all of that money? Are the schools going to keep it – and if so, what are they going to do with it? Will it be treated like money found in the laundry you can go crazy with? Gwinnet schools -where’s the meal money?




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