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Aspen middle schoolers at lunchtime in the cafeteria on Thursday.

A Carbondale brewery made local headlines when its fundraising efforts successfully paid off the accumulated student lunch debt for Carbondale Middle School’s seventh-grade class and raised enough money to provide a $1,000-plus cushion heading into the new year.

“I’m shocked how much money I got,” said Patrice Fuller, proprietor of Carbondale Beer Works. “I was floored that many people [contributed].”

In addition to a fundraising event at her establishment in December, Fuller also posted flyers and started a Facebook campaign to raise the money.

“I exceeded my goal in about 20 hours,” she said of the Facebook endeavor. “I cut the fundraiser because I had already exceeded my goal, but then people just kept bringing me money into Beer Works. It was really cool.”

And while the community rallied to ensure the debts were erased — in fact, a donor had already privately paid the eighth grade’s lunch debt — the campaign also brought up some painful memories for a few former students.

““I was one of those kids, and we didn’t get to eat back then,’” Fuller recalled a woman saying to her. “I forget — I work in a restaurant; I can eat everyday.”

Today, that’s no longer the case. Every student will receive a meal, regardless of payment status, but Roaring Fork School District Food Director Michelle Hammond remembers when some students would go hungry or feel the social stigma of receiving an alternative, baser meal.

“So of course that would hinder students from even coming to get any food, because they knew that they would be shamed upon,” she said.

That changed during the 2017-18 school year, when the district passed a policy banning alternative meals for younger students.

“All students, preschool through eighth grade, can receive a meal regardless of what their balance is, and that meal is the same meal that other students [eat] for lunch that day,” Hammond said. “I can tell you that prior to our district passing the school meal payment policy, as a manager in a kitchen, to deny a preschooler or any student a meal because of an outstanding balance that their parent has not paid was very emotional, just excruciating.”

Additionally with the policy shift, Roaring Fork preschoolers, elementary and middle school students are given the benefit of ignorance if they do carry lunch debt.

“Since then, along with that policy, the food service staff no longer communicates with the student about the balance,” she said. “The child never knows if they owe money. That communication is made directly to the parent or guardian of the student.”

At the high school level, however, students shoulder more responsibility in the process, though they’ll never go unfed.

“Now … our policy does read that a student is allowed to charge up to three meals, and after that, if the student still has an outstanding balance, an alternative meal will be given — if the student wants it — and that alternative meal is given for free.”

Carrying a balance can have more consequences than a different lunch, too, though they vary with individual administrators’ collections tactics, which could range from not being allowed to attend school dances or field trips to not walking during a graduation ceremony.

“Their outstanding balance will follow the student year after year as long as the student is enrolled in our district until they graduate or they transfer or unenroll from the district. At that point, the general fund covers the balance,” Hammond explained, adding that dollars going toward lunch debt from the general fund means dollars not going into classrooms.

“It still needs to be paid. Federal regulation won’t allow the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Child Nutrition Program to cover that cost,” she said.

One such nutrition program in which Roaring Fork participates is the USDA National School Lunch Program, or NSLP, which provides federally assisted, nutritionally balanced low-cost or free lunches to students in public, nonprofit or nonprofit private schools. In the 2019-20 school year, NSLP reimburses schools $3.41 for every free lunch served, $3.01 for reduced-rate meals and 32 cents for student-bought lunches, according to the School Nutrition Association.

While schools are not legally allowed to run cafeterias at a profit, they shouldn’t be at a loss, either, so that 32-cent reimbursement for purchased meals helps keep the cost of those meals manageable for families. In order to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches through NSLP, families must meet the federal income limit: $3,970 per month for a family of four for reduced-priced meals or $2,790 for free meals.

About 41 percent of families qualify in the Roaring Fork school district, Hammond said.

“Garfield RE-2, our neighboring school district, they have a free/reduced rate of 53 percent, so it is quite different,” she noted.

In the Aspen School District, exactly 41 families qualify for free lunch — 2.4 percent of the entire student population, from preschool to 12th grade. When including those who qualify for reduced-price lunch, that statistic goes up to 4.1 percent, Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe said.

But that statistic may be misleading, she noted. Certainly, some students’ families experience financial hardship. But living in Aspen — where the overall cost of living for a homeowner is almost three times the national average, not including child care expenses — at or under the NSLP income limits is near impossible, so there’s simply not a large population that qualifies.

It’s also the reason that Aspen schools don’t participate in the program, Warhoe said. NSLP applies the same income eligibility guidelines to all 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii and Alaska, however, have more tailored numbers. The highest cap applies to Alaskans, at $4,963 monthly for a family of four for reduced-rate meals and $3,488 for free lunches.

“It’s just so expensive to live up here. It’s crazy expensive,” Warhoe said. “We self manage using the Alaska cost of living to determine if someone is free or reduced. If they meet the guidelines from Alaska, we support their [lunches], but we pay for that as a district.”

Thanks to nonprofit supporters such as the Aspen Education Foundation, student lunch debt is not a reality for Aspen students.

“We’ve been fortunate that there’s been generous donors that have helped and organizations that have helped,” she said. “If we had a kiddo that just had a huge negative balance on their free and reduced lunch, there are just so many foundations that would help us with that. The people in Aspen are so generous.”

Warhoe is incredibly grateful that the community and district are able to operate in such a way that offers real help to families with income guidelines more reflective of the local financial reality, but that’s not to say she wouldn’t like to one day be able to participate in the federal programs.

“What we have to do on our end in Aspen is report our data up to the state, so we manually look at every single application, and I have to bring it back down to the federal guidelines,” she said.

That’s obviously added workload for her, but as long as the national numbers remain where they are, Warhoe said it’s worth the extra effort.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a crisis because we’re able to handle it, but the [federal] program’s intention is kind of out of date, I think,” she said. “It has not kept up with the times. I just wish the program could seriously be updated.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.