TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — After a rash of complaints on social media, Tahlequah Public Schools is allowing students who have not returned meal program forms or put money in their accounts to charge meals for the next few days.

“We want to try to help parents as much as possible, so we have extended the time students can charge for meals for the rest of this week. Hopefully this will be enough time to either fill out a lunch form or add money to their account,” said TPS Superintendent Leon Ashlock.

Part of the back-to-school routine is making sure students eat meals to keep them energized throughout the day. For TPS students, that can lead to packing healthy lunches or making sure money for meals gets credited to students' accounts.

As a participant in the Free and Reduced Price Meal Program, the TPS Child Nutrition Team distributes applications. For the 2019-2020 school year, application packets were available beginning Aug. 1 at the Child Nutrition Office, 619 N. Jones Road, and on the TPS website, www.tahlequahschools.org. They were also available during open houses at the TPS sites.

“The packets include instructions and information needed to complete the application, as well as a cover letter outlining our policies and procedures,” said Ashlock. “We do not require everyone to complete a free and reduced meals application. By law, we can’t force anyone to complete an application, but we do strongly encourage it because that is the only way to receive free or reduced-priced meals.”

On Monday afternoon, the third day TPS was back in session, a parent’s Facebook post began getting attention with patrons concerned about the meals students are getting, and the process of getting those meals.

A father shared a photo of his daughter’s cheese sandwich. That was what she was allowed to have because her Free and Reduced Price Meal Program form had not been turned in and funds in her Child Nutrition account were depleted.

“Limited meal choices are only given if the student does not have sufficient funds – in cash or lunch account – to pay for the meal; students are allowed to charge up to $10 before this happens,” said Ashlock. “A free alternate meal is offered so the child does not go without a meal. The alternate meal consists of a cheese sandwich and milk. We do not offer peanut butter sandwiches any longer due to severe nut allergies.”

Returning TPS students who had money in their accounts at the end of the previous year will be able to use that.

“Payments can be made in person to the site cashiers in the cafeterias or at the Child Nutrition Office using a check or cash. Lunch accounts can be managed online using the Wengage (MAS) parent portal, and payments can be made there using PayPal,” said Ashlock.

As for the application packets: only one per family needs to be filled out, and some families may have already received letters stating their eligibility. A new application is needed even for those who filled out one and were approved the previous year.

The current cover letter states: “Your child’s application is only good for that school year and for the first few days of this school year (through September 19, 2019). You must send in a new application unless the school told you that your child is eligible for the new school year. If you do not send in a new application that is approved by the school or you have not been notified that your child is eligible for free meals, your child will be charged the full-price for meals.”

Anyone who goes to the Child Nutrition office, emails or faxes their form to Child Nutrition are approved the same day, according to Ashlock.

“If it is turned in at a site, then they are collected daily and processed in the order they are received. We have around 3,600 kids, so there may be a day or two wait time. By law, we have 10 days to process the form, but it never takes that long. Our Child Nutrition employees work very hard to process them as soon as they can,” he said.

Students eligible for free or reduced-price meals include: children in households receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; foster children who are under the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court; children in Head Start programs; children who meet the definition of homeless, runaway, or migrant; and children whose household’s income is within the limits on the Federal Income Eligibility Guidelines.

Those who disagree with the school’s decision about their applications may call the Child Nutrition Director at 918-458-4193. If there are still issues, a parent may ask for a hearing by calling or writing to: Superintendent Leon Ashlock, Board of Education, 225 N. Water Ave., Tahlequah, OK 74464, 918-458-4100.

As life’s situations change, parents or guardians can update their applications to reflect changes in employment, income, or household size.

Students who qualify for free meals will be allowed one breakfast and one lunch per day. Those approved for reduced meals, will receive one breakfast per day at the reduced rate of 30 cents, and one lunch per day at the reduced rate of 40 cents. Meal prices per day for those who do not qualify are: breakfast, $1.75; lunch at elementary schools, $2.75; and lunch at the middle and high schools, $3. An extra milk is 30 cents.

According to the application letter, children have the opportunity to fill their trays at each meal with “meat or meat alternate, fruit, vegetables, bread or grain alternate, and milk. A fruit or vegetable must be taken as one of the choices. In addition to our main serving lines, all of our schools have fruit and vegetable bars with a variety of daily offerings.”

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