Growing meal debt has Garfield Re-2 School District hungry for solutions

Chrissy Haxton prepara platos de tacos y arroz antes del almuerzo en la Escuela Primaria Graham Mesa en Rifle en el otoño de 2022.
Chelsea Self/Citizen Telegram

Student meal debt has accumulated to nearly $25,000 since the Garfield Re-2 School District 2022 calendar year began in August, a district official reported last week.

Garfield Re-2 Director of Nutrition Services Mary McPhee told the school board Oct. 26 that the significant dip was expected after the federal government had granted the COVID-era universal free meals over the past two years.

That option officially ended this school year.

“I know this is a debt that none of us want to have and are nervous it will never get paid,” McPhee said. “But every school district has the same problem.”

Numbers provided by Roaring Fork School District Public Information Officer Kelsy Been, show their district currently has $40,000 in meal debt.

On the other side of the county, Garfield 16 School District currently does not have any meal debt. A big reason why is because it qualifies for Provision 2 meal programs through the United States Department of Agriculture. This service solely offers free breakfast and lunch to districts with 75% or more of students falling in low-income categories.

But McPhee said that the Garfield Re-2 district’s meal debt fluctuates constantly, and there’s a decent chance that the district could see that number level off as the year progresses.

The transition back to paid meals — this includes lunch and breakfast — meant families that needed it were encouraged to apply for free-and-reduced meal services at the beginning of the school year. About 36% of the Garfield Re-2 student body right now participates in this service, McPhee’s data shows.

But there is still a significant number of families who have yet to apply for free-and-reduced meal services — an option that is still available no matter what time of year. McPhee said 51 Re-2 students currently owe more than $100; 106 owe between $50-$99; 366 owe between $10-$49; and another 499 owe less than $10.

The district serves 8,000 meals a day.

Kitchen manager Pam Harris helps a kid enter his number during the lunch hour at Graham Mesa Elementary School in Rifle on Monday.
Chelsea Self/Citizen Telegram

At no point does a student not get a regular hot meal if they’re unable to pay, nor are any students penalized academically when they still have an outstanding debt, McPhee said.

“I do think most families in our district are paying,” she said. “But the fact still remains that we have a meal debt currently of $24,578.76.”

Rising meal debt like this in the fall semester isn’t uncommon to the Re-2 district, however. Pre-pandemic year 2019 saw the district incur more than $19,000 in meal debt. But that debt was washed out by private donations and grants.


Many school districts across the state are right now crossing their fingers Proposal FF on the statewide ballot passes. Voters on Nov. 8 will be asked to support limiting state income tax deductions for the wealthiest 5% of Coloradans. Revenue accumulated for this effort will help support universal free meals for all school districts and, if it does pass, will go in effect for the 2023-24 school year.

Until then, the Garfield Re-2 district is trying to curtail any outstanding payments from further growth.

“I think it’s great what we’re doing,” school board member Jason Shoup said. “But I happen to be one of the guys on the nervous side. So when we’re looking at $24,000 in debt, if it continues to occur like that, by the end of the school year we’re at $108,000 worth of debt.”

McPhee offered some ideas that can right now perhaps ease the issue. One would be to turn parents over to a collections agency.

Another would involve qualifying for a state program that offers free vegetables and fruits all school year. The only caveat to this option is that a school district has to have at least 50% of students receiving free or reduced meals.

School board members also responded by saying they could bolster the ways they get parents to apply for free-and-reduced services. This could mean sending out more fliers and notifications.

Though the board requested that it be provided monthly updates highlighting where the debt stands, it is likely the district will fully revisit its meal debt in January to see if it needs to take further action.

“I think, for right now, we feed all the kids,” McPhee said. “I don’t ever want to pull a tray. I don’t ever want to give a cheese sandwich.”

More information on free and reduced meals
  • According to the district, eligibility for free and reduced meals is income dependent. Visit for more information.
  • Applications cannot be done online or by phone. An official paper application must be obtained, filled out by hand and returned to the district. Contact Free and Reduced Coordinator Shari Edwards at 970-665-7604 for more information.
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