The first week of the new school meals program at the Parker Unified School District did not go smoothly. There were stories on social media of students being denied hot meals due to their not being classified as qualifying for free or reduced price meals. They were given sack lunches instead.
PUSD Superintendent Brad Sale said the problems stemmed from going from the Community Eligibility Program which provided for free meals to all students back to the National School Lunch Program. He said the district was not allowed the transition period they were told they would be allowed.
Sale said CEP is a federal program administered by the Arizona Department of Agriculture. The Parker schools have been on the program for the last four years. Sale said they reapplied for the program for another four-year period starting with the 2022-23 school year, but were turned down due to changed demographics.
On top of this, when the Parker schools applied for the program four years ago, they were told that, if they were denied renewal, the program would still apply for one more year so the district could take applications for free and reduced price meals and get their records and classifications in place.
Sale said the district was told the program would not be extended for a transition period. As a result, he said the school administration had to do what would normally take a year in just a few weeks. They were informed the renewal was denied and there would be no transition period in June. They couldn’t start the actual work until the school board approved the new program at their July 13 meeting.
The first day of school was Aug. 1.
“The big problem was we had no designations as to who qualified for free or reduced-price meals because we hadn’t done if for four years under the old program,” Sale said.
The process of processing applications in person and online was slow, Sale said. Add on to this the computer system for the company administering the program, Harris School Solutions, was down several times during the first week of school.
Sale said they are still putting data into the system. He said he hopes to have 80 to 85 percent done by the end of this week. He said he and the staff are determined to get the job done.
“We’ll get better,” he said. “The people who have seen me know I’m fired up about this.”
Sale thanked the people who have made donations to help pay the costs of meals for students who can’t afford them or whose accounts aren’t up to date. He said more than $2,000 had been donated of Wednesday, Aug. 3. The idea was started by local resident and CRIT member Michael Breazzeal.
What can parents do until the system if fully set up?
“Make sure your kids bring money or a lunch until we can get this all sorted out,” Sale said.
For grades K-12, the full price for breakfast is $2.25 per meal, while the price for lunch is $3.25 per meal. Sale said, under the law, the program is expected to break even, but not produce a profit.
“We are still trying to feed kids,” Sale said. “If they can’t afford a lunch, we’ll make sure they get something to eat.”
The Colorado River Indian Tribes Food Distribution Program has announced that any Tribal families that are on their program automatically qualify for free meals at the schools. They said they are working with the PUSD school meals program to make sure that all families on the FDP receive this benefit. They urge Tribal families in the FDP to check “FDPIR” box on their applications for free or reduced-price school meals.
For any questions regarding the FDP, Tribal members are urged to call 928-575-1191