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APS Keeps Cheese Sandwiches

FOR THE RECORD: The spelling of Jon Barela's name has been corrected in this story.

By Andrea Schoellkopf
Journal Staff Writer
       Cheese sandwiches are still on the menu.
    Albuquerque Public Schools will continue to serve the sandwiches to students with unpaid lunch debts, barring an agreement with community groups to pay down most of the bill.
    The policy of offering a sandwich to a child whose parents haven't paid the lunch tab is working, APS officials told the school board during a special meeting Monday. It has brought in $42,000 of the $140,000 in lunch debts, and qualified another 1,300 students for free or reduced-prices lunches since early January.
    "We are providing more children meals and more nutritious meals than we have ever in the past," Superintendent Winston Brooks said, recommending that the school board keep the policy.
    Students receive a cheese sandwich in lieu of a hot meal if they have exceeded a set amount of unpaid charged meals, ranging from two at high schools to 10 at elementaries.
    Critics of the policy say it stigmatizes children by separating them from others in the lunch line.
    Opponents — some of whom showed up with signs and children dressed in cardboard costumes of cheese sandwiches and cartons of milk — vowed to continue their fight for a reversal after Monday's 5-2 board vote to let the policy stand. A task force of community members and APS officials will continue working toward an agreement until March 1, which is the day new board members from the February election will be sworn in.
    The New Mexico Collaboration to End Hunger had offered to raise at least $51,000 — the amount roughly owed by students who only recently qualified for the federal lunch program — but it was contingent on APS taking cheese sandwiches off the menu for all students.
    "There are other ways to address this deficit," said Randy Royster, whose organization Albuquerque Community Foundation is one of 50 groups making up the Collaboration to End Hunger.
    Board member Berna Facio questioned the efficiency of the two-week-old committee in not reaching an agreement.
    "If we're still going to give cheese sandwiches then we haven't gotten anywhere," said Facio, who said she would rather APS threaten to garnishee wages of nonpaying parents than give their children cheese sandwiches when they try to charge lunch.
    Prices have increased by 35 to 50 cents in the last two years due to rising food and fuel costs, and the administration said a third increase would be necessary unless the rising debt of unpaid charges was addressed. The district's operating budget is $656 million this year.
    Board member Jon Barela said in a Journal editorial board meeting Monday that unpaid meal charges have gone from $55,000 in 2005-2006 to $140,000 through December of the current school year. He said this year's debt could have reached $300,000 by the end of this year if nothing were done.
    That amount, he said, would pay for eight part-time fine-arts teachers, or a districtwide middle-school athletics program.
    Barela dismissed the idea that a cheese sandwich lunch would stigmatize children, as critics have said.
    "At what point do we try to destigmatize everything? What will stigmatize a child are parents who are allowed to not pay their debts."
    APS food services director Mary Swift said the district is serving 100 to 130 cheese sandwiches districtwide a day, down from more than 500 the first day of the new policy.
    As part of its work with the community groups trying to change the lunch policy, APS has agreed to offer a fruit or vegetable with the cheese sandwich, and to seek state food stamps enrollment data three times a year to try to find new children who need free lunches.
    Royster said the coalition plans to take its efforts statewide, to the other districts that also provide alternate meals to students with unpaid lunch debt.

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