Helping DMPS Families With the Cost of School Meals

Des Moines Public Schools is working to meet the twin goals of increasing the awareness for families of eligibility for free and reduced price meals while also recouping money owed to the district for overdue payments with a new policy that went into effect this year for elementary schools; a revised policy was implemented two years ago at the secondary level that resulted in a decrease of outstanding balances owed for meals.

Although the plan will limit the number of charged meals that will be provided to students with overdue account balances, Sandy Huisman, the district’s Director of Food & Nutrition Management, emphasizes that so far this year no elementary student has been refused a meal. She says the guiding principles of the policy are as follows:

  • To treat all students with dignity and respect;
  • To maintain a positive experience for your child during meal service;
  • To establish practices that are age appropriate; and
  • To promote parents’ responsibility for meal payments and self-responsibility of the student.

“Payment in advance for meals enables the district to achieve these goals,” Huisman says.  “A procedure that has an intervention and consequence will assist in identifying families that may not understand the application for free/reduced meals so we can help them. Students who qualify for free meals will be served regardless of loan amount. However, families are still responsible for payment of debt already incurred.”

Under the new policy, families who owed in excess of $400 for school meals at the end of last year received a letter in June alerting them to the changes which are intended to gradually reduce account balances over the course of the year. In August a cap of $500 was set for the size of an outstanding balance a student may have for meals; that amount is reduced by $50 each month. Gradually reducing the limit will allow families to chip away at their balance instead of paying it in a lump sum. When the 2013-14 school year opens account credit limits will be set at $25.

Huisman feels the revised DMPS policy is flexible and reasonable in comparison to those employed in surrounding districts.

There is a standard process by which families are kept aware of their account status:

  • An email and phone message is sent weekly to parents of any student with a negative balance.
  • Online payments may be made at
  • Families may also set up balance alerts and view student meal account activity.

School principals are also provided a list by the 15th of the month of students that may be exceeding the balance limit by the start of the following month so that they may work personally with families, too. For students who have an outstanding balance that exceeds the credit limit, the following steps will take place:

  • On the first and second days that a child arrives with a balance less than the allowable cap, the cashier will allow them to charge the regular meal and give the child a note as a reminder to bring payment.
  • On the third, fourth and fifth days a child arrives without money, they are fed an alternate meal in the school office.  This meal can only be given three times and is charged to the student’s account.
  • After five days meals will no longer be provided without payment.  The student must bring a meal from home or bring payment daily.

Huisman notes that in a district of more than 30,000 students a relatively small number are responsible for a large amount of loans.  Currently 446 students, less than two percent of the total student population, have balances in excess of $200, which in total amount to $133,603.02.

Many students who have outstanding balances for meals may actually qualify for free or reduced price meals, and the school district is encouraging families to participate in the program if they qualify. Roughly two-thirds of DMPS students are eligible for free/reduced price meals but many either don’t realize it or are reluctant to apply, especially as long as they are permitted to charge meals on an unlimited basis and without consequence. For those who qualify for reduced prices, breakfast costs only 30 cents and lunch only 40 cents.

“We have an online application available for the first time this year on the district website and it does appear that more families are applying – possibly because it’s more private and for many is more easily accessible,” Huisman said.

To download the application for free and reduced price meals, please click here.

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