TALLMADGE - After a cafeteria staff member took away a lunch from a middle school student who owed $6.40 in the Wellington Exempted Village School District, parents can be reassured students have options to prevent hunger in the local school district.

The nutrition services department must be financially self-sufficient to avoid being a negative drain on classroom funds. Households are responsible for ensuring that there are adequate funds to cover their child’s meals each day.

"Families can pay online and EZPay automatically tells them the balance," said Steve Wood, chief operations officer for the school district. "Most families use EZPay, and we charge no fees for using a credit card."

The EZPay website allows households to make online payments, monitor account balances, and track student purchases in the schools’ cafeterias.

Parents can access the district’s web site at www.tallmadgeschools.org and under the Nutrition Services page is the EZPay link where parents can create an account and add money to their child’s school meal account. There is no fee for this service. Cash and checks are also accepted at all kitchens.

Taxpayers support the schools and the schools are willing to help families out but they cannot be a drain on the school’s finances, Wood said.

"We work with families and make the system work," he said.

Once the account reaches more than a negative balance of $10, a letter is sent either weekly or monthly to the household until the balance is fully paid off.

All students with negative balances will be served a regular school meal. Students with a negative account balance of any amount will not be allowed to purchase a la carte items on account.

If lunch or other fees are not paid by the end of the school year, the fees will be carried over to the student account as a part of their non-waivable feees.

"We encourage families to pay," Wood said. "If they can’t, we work with them to pay down the debt. If they don’t pay, they won’t be able to graduate or transfer [school credits] to another district."

The treasurer’s office doesn’t track students who owe lunch money, said Treasurer Jeff Hostetler.

"When a student’s accounts run low, they generally add more funding," Hostetler said. "This may be done immediately, or over a period of a couple days. There are, on occasion, students who overdraw their accounts, but we work with those folks to get back on track. We encourage those who qualify for free or reduced lunch to submit the paperwork to take advantage of those programs."

If a student ends the year with a deficit in their account, they will clear it at the end of the year or it sits there until they make it up to start the next year, Hostetler said — the same way a positive balance will carry over to the next year. The district isn’t losing any money because of unpaid school lunches. Any unpaid balance is minimal.

"This doesn’t mean that we don’t keep an eye on students who owe either lunch money or fees money, but we don’t track this on an ongoing basis," Hostetler said. "Negative balances in students’ accounts are made up at some point in time."

The Tallmadge City Schools offer breakfast and lunch every day for its students. Those in K-5 can purchase breakfast for $1.75 and grades 6-12 can purchase breakfast for $2. Lunch prices range from $2.75 for K-5; $3 for grades 6-8; and $3.25 for grades 9-12.

This is the seventh year for breakfast, which is popular with the younger students, said Wood. About 25 percent of students at Dunbar Primary School and Munroe Elementary School participate in the breakfast program.

"We want the kids to start the day not hungry and ready to learn," Wood said.

Students may qualify for free meals or for reduced-price meals of $0.30 for breakfast and $0.40 for lunch. Online applications are available on the district website www.tallmadgeschools.org under the District>Departments> Nutrition Services section.

Of the 2,400 students in the Tallmadge School District, 20 percent to 25 percent use the free or reduced lunch program, Wood said.

All children in households receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Ohio Works First (OWF); foster children that are under the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court; children participating in their school’s Head Start program; and children who meet the definition of homeless, runaway, or migrant are eligible for free meals.

"Every kid who comes through the line, we serve a full lunch meal," Wood said. "We want kids to be well nourished, confident and have a great day. We don’t want kids to feel embarrassed."

Also, children may receive free or reduced-price meals if a household’s income is within the limits on the federal income eligibility guidelines with household size and yearly incomes of 1 person, $23,107; 2,31,284; 3, $39,461; 4, $47,638; and 5, $55,815. A full chart with monthly and weekly income amounts is on the school website.

Parents can apply for free or reduced lunches at any time during the school year if unemployment or changes in income causes the household income to drop below the income limit. U.S. citizenship is not a requirement for free or reduced price meals.

Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or lfreeman@recordpub.com