An audit that reflected an overall $974,485 deficit for the Hoboken district food service fund’s operating losses from 2005-2013 has inspired an odd motivator: Egg salad sandwiches.
Recently, the district sent out a memo saying that kids whose parents who are behind in paying for lunch will get egg salad sandwiches only as lunch, on the second and third consecutive offense. High school students will get nothing.
The egg salad sandwiches were chosen deliberately. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Mark Toback said on Monday that if the sandwich was cheese, some families might never pay. Egg salad sandwiches are not as popular.
“It fits in with all guidelines,” he said, “but some kids may not like it.”
Toback said that the nearly $1 million in losses didn’t all come from late lunch payments. Some of it was due to food spoilage or equipment damage. However, according to Toback, the “overwhelming majority” is due to unpaid lunches.
“I never thought of an egg salad sandwich of a symbol of anything, but it really is.” – Dr. Mark Toback
The late payments are not from the district’s poorest students. Those students already get free or low-cost lunches; in fact, 70 percent of the public school students qualify for discounted meals.
“So these losses reflect the 30 percent that are paying for lunch, that aren’t paying,” he said.
Lost lunch money
Toback explained that several years ago, the records were not computerized as they are now. Children were adding their lunch to a tab and the tabs were never being paid.
“The first thing we had to do to right the ship was computerize the system and have red flags going off when people owed money,” said Toback.
“It was to the extent that certain parents owed thousands of dollars,” he added. “Some of these parents then left the district and the money couldn’t be recovered.”
Auditors were brought in to back-bill some of the parents.
“Last year we were able to recover about $150,000,” Toback said.
Toback also explained that in order to cover for losses in the past, the district ultimately had to transfer funds from other places. This could include taxpayer dollars.
“Not only have we lost money in the past, but in order to make up for our accumulated losses of nearly $1,000,000, we will be paying our debt service account at a rate of $200,000 per year,” he said. “This being the case, we will not be using that $200,000 per year for textbooks, technology, and other things that would improve the school system.”
What the district hopes to see is a business that at least breaks even, something that Toback said he anticipates by the end of this year.
“The board is trying to run a business operation,” he said. “We are trying to break even at least so it doesn’t ultimately come out of the taxpayers’ pockets.”
Egg in their faces
Toback said that elementary children are really not at fault for not having the money for lunch.
“The little ones are not at fault. High school students can go borrow the money from a friend,” said Toback.
Although a recent memo sent to parents said that kids would get egg salad sandwiches upon non-payment, it’s not that simple.
Elementary school children will be able to receive their meal of choice upon the first occurrence of a non-payment. On the second and third consecutive occasions, the student will be served an alternate meal including the egg salad sandwich, fruit, vegetable, and milk. They will still incur the debt, but they no longer will have the choice over what they eat.
After three non-payments, they will continue to get a lunch, it just may not be egg salad forever.
“I never thought of an egg salad sandwich of a symbol of anything,” Toback said, “but it really is.”
Amanda Palasciano may be reached at email@example.com.