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Meal debt continues to grow at Garfield Re-2

District still encouraging families to apply for free-and-reduced options

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

Debt accrued from families not paying for student meals continues to grow for the Garfield Re-2 School District, an official said last week.

Numbers presented by Director of Nutrition Services Mary McPhee to school board members show meal debt service increased from about $24,578 on Oct. 25 to $35,511 on Jan. 11.

A big reason why meal debt continues to inflate is because district families who still qualify for free-and-reduced meals are simply not filling out their applications, McPhee said. 



Despite November’s vote to pass Proposition FF, which implements universal free meals in Colorado schools by the 2023-24 school year, Garfield Re-2 is still responsible for paying for the meal debt they accrue this year.

“Because even though this is going to start next school year, we still need to get free-and-reduced applications more than ever before,” McPhee said.



This growing debt is pushing the school board to consider using collections services or putting families on monthly payment plans to help cover outstanding bills. School Board Member Jason Shoup worried, if nothing’s done, the district could incur as much as $60,000 in meal debt by the end of the school year.

“Then we’ve got a really big elephant in the room,” he said.

“I’m 90% sure it’s the same families that are struggling, but how can we fix that?”

There are right now 980 district students who owe money for meals. Another 1,800 owe nothing, while 2,000 students at Garfield Re-2 are positive in their accounts. 

The district has also served 14,835 breakfasts, 53,879 lunches and another 19,186 faculty/guest meals since Oct. 25, McPhee’s numbers show. That’s 70,992 total meals in less than three months.

Amid all these served meals, McPhee said families aren’t filling out free-and-reduced applications because they might be uncertain of where the information goes or that they’re perhaps not meeting the thresholds to qualify.

“If you make $1 over you don’t qualify,” she said.

According to the application, a family household of four making less than $51,338 may qualify for free-and-reduced meals.

At one point in December, an anonymous “lunch angel” donated $2,675, which, at the time, completely wiped out the entire student meal debt at Elk Creek Elementary School in New Castle. By Jan. 11, that school’s meal debt grew back to $177.

McPhee said a focus group made up of members from the Colorado Department of Education, Colorado school district chief financial officers, social workers, nurses and more are currently developing recommendations on how at-risk funding will be paid to Colorado school districts.

Those recommendations are set to come out by the end of January. Online free and reduced applications, which are also in Spanish, can be found at https://www.garfieldre2.net/our_district/food_nutrition/free_and_reduced_lunch_info


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