Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in debt over free lunches

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School’s lunch policy has accumulated thousands in unpaid lunch fees for the school district.

At a March meeting, CHCCS Board of Education voted to appropriate money from their fund balance to cover almost $40,000 in unpaid meals.

In addition to the $40,000 in unpaid meals, the district’s Child Nutrition Department also ran a deficit for the 2010-2011 school year.

The school district’s lunch policy does not deny elementary or middle school children meals if they do not have money, said Liz Cartano, director of dining for Chartwells at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

Students who cannot pay for lunch are still charged for the lunch, and parents are billed for the lunch fee. But many parents have not paid those charges, leaving the district to foot the bill.

The Child Nutrition Department in CHCCS is not required to absorb the costs, Cartano said.

The district contracts to an outside firm, Chartwells Schools Dining Services, to manage the district’s Child Nutrition Department.

District spokeswoman Stephanie Knott said she thinks the deficit exists in the Child Nutrition budget because of their outsourcing model.

Chartwells was hired when the contract with the previous vendor expired, Knott said.

“There are a number of issues that make it challenging in terms of the cost of food when the expectation is that kids receive healthy foods,” Knott said.

She said the school lunch providers face competition when students bring their own lunch or leave school to purchase lunch.

The schools in the district face additional challenges when trying to provide food that is both healthy and affordable.

“It’s been a challenge to make money,” Knott said. “Good food is not cheap food.”

Unlike CHCCS’ lunch model, the Orange County School district’s Child Nutrition Services department is school-operated.

Michael Gilbert, spokesman for Orange County Schools, said the department has run a profit for the past three years.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we have a higher level of control, and we have access to staff without having to go to off-site managers,” Gilbert said.

He said the school board members looked into hiring an outside company, but decided against it.

“It’s about being sure that we have control of the program and the quality of food we are serving.”

Despite the deficit, the district is still focusing on healthy meals.

At the April 19 Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board of Education meeting, Cartano said the department will celebrate the 10 elementary schools within the district that earned a high recognition in the HealthierUS School Challenge.

But she also discussed recent Child Nutrition projects including an audit and building relationships with the Parent-Teacher Association and school groups.

Child Nutrition’s financial loss to date is $130,000, based on data meeting materials.

Contact the City Editor at city@dailytarheel.com.

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