Patti Bilbrey

Patti Bilbrey, Scottsdale Unified School District’s director of nutrition services, said the district has eliminated the 40-cent fee for students who qualify for reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines.

The Scottsdale Unified School District is taking steps to increase food security for students by getting rid of the reduced-price lunch fee.

In years past, students who qualified for a reduced-price lunch under federal guidelines had to pay 40 cents. The district had already waived the fee for reduced-price breakfast over a decade ago. 

Patti Bilbrey, SUSD’s director of nutrition services, said that she anticipated the removal of the fee will increase the participation in the program, which could pay big dividends for students.

According to the district, over 800 students qualified for reduced-price meals last year and 5,000 students qualified for the free meal program.

Bilbrey said increasing regular access to food through the lunch program can improve student academics, behavior and social interactions with others.

According to the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, access to regular meals through the National School Lunch Program can reduce food insecurity, obesity rates and poor health amongst students while also improving performance in the classroom.

The district’s Nutrition Services department will cover the cost to waive the lunch fee.

Bilbrey said the department is in a healthy financial position and can absorb the costs within its budget.

Nutrition Services is a self-sufficient department within the district, meaning it is funded through its own revenues and does not receive allocations from the district’s maintenance and operations budget.

“It is not a stretch for our department to make it happen,” Bilbrey said. “We’re still able to provide all the great things we do for our students, our employees and the district.”

Bilbrey credited staff in her department and on site at schools for tracking food cost and usage to avoid waste and make the department’s dollars go as far as possible.

With that financial stability in place, Bilbrey said waiving the fee was a no brainer.

“We’re not in it for anything else other than we just love what we do and want to make sure that every kid has access to a good meal,” Bilbrey said. “And when you see kids who come in and can’t pay something as little as 40 cents, you try to figure out a way to make that happen.”

The overall cost to waive the fee will be relatively low.

Bilbrey said the students qualified for the reduced-price lunch program make up only about three percent of the district’s total student population, so the costs to waive the fee will not be overly burdensome.

”It’s such a small percentage that it just seemed like the right thing to do,” Bilbrey said, noting that removing the fee could increase participation.

Last year, only about 60 percent of eligible students participated in the reduced-price lunch program in SUSD, Bilbrey said.

A number of factors, including economic hardship, could play a role in that rate of participation.

The Arizona minimum wage rose to $11 an hour this year but there was no associated change in the federal poverty guidelines, meaning some families that had qualified for free lunches in the past now have too much income to qualify for that program, according to a district press release.

However, that does not mean some families still do not struggle to pay for lunches.

“There are so many people who barely miss that free cut off,” Bilbrey said. “If you have multiple children it can be difficult. It is sometimes difficult for them to pay for that everyday.”