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by Gail Marsh
The number of Harrison County students who eat hot lunch at school has increased by 500 students per day since the county started sending bills home to students' parents in January.
And the increased number of children eating at school has brought in an additional $336,000 from the state, enough to offset any costs associated with the new billing method, school officials said Thursday.
That's because the state reimburses counties to help cover the cost of serving free and reduced lunches to school children.
"We are now feeding many more students nutritious meals that they may have not been receiving prior to this program,'' said Sharon Haddix, the board treasurer who oversees the program.
Instead of bringing money to school, students who want to eat lunch can now present a card or give an assigned student number that is entered into a computer. The number of lunches are totaled each month and sent to the central office, which now bills parents directly for meals.
"This has meant more work at the central office, but we had two lunch clerks out in the schools that we were able to pull in here to help. We haven't had to hire any additional staff," said Haddix.
The school system served an average of 30 more free lunches, 120 more reduced-price lunches and 365 more paid lunches daily from January to June. About 7,550 of Harrison County's 12,000 students ate lunch at school.
Haddix said she believes there are a couple of reasons for the increased participation.
"Now that the kids aren't being identified as getting free or reduced lunch, they are more likely to eat. And high school kids who don't have the money on hand or have spent their money on other things are now choosing more often to eat lunch at school," she said.
Lunch participation has increased by about 75 students per day at South Harrison High School since the billing system went into effect, according to Christine Pulice, secretary at the high school.
"We don't have to mess with taking up money every morning, and it's a lot less paperwork for us, too," she said.
Pulice said that before centralized billing, one person had to collect lunch money, make change and give the lunch count to the office each day.
Reports used to be typed by hand, but now everything is recorded monthly on a computer printout, she said.
"The only time we handle money is on the days we serve pizza or pepperoni rolls. A few students will want to buy an extra lunch, and there is no way to record that.
"We also take in 15 cents for an extra milk or $2.75 when a visitor or substitute teacher chooses to eat," she said.
Haddix said the system has worked well so far. About $16,000 remains to be collected from the last school year, which Haddix attributes to a misunderstanding in the way the May and June bills were combined.
"There are a few bills left from the last school year that we are pursuing, but we expect to clear most of those up. The extra funding we get from the state more than covers any losses we may incur," she said.
If a student's account becomes delinquent, Haddix said the central office will go after the parents, but the student will still be able to get lunch.
"We want to make sure a student gets to eat, but we will pursue the parents to pay any overdue bills.
"I suppose we could make the child pay daily, but we don't want to take away their privileges," she said.