SPECIAL REPORT: Controversy over MCSD lunches

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Controversy over school lunches at the Muscogee County School District has been going on since the beginning on February.

Parents and community members are concerned that students were not being fed lunch and going hungry.

In an exclusive interview, we sat down with MCSD Director of Nutrition Susan Schlader and some of the people who were behind this movement.

"My son came home from school one day, as soon as he got in the car, he said 'a friend of mine got their lunch tray taken away because he said he didn't have enough money' and I said 'what do you mean taken away?'" said parent Carrie Burford. "Came home and posted on Facebook about it and my friends are like are you serious?!"

"When Carrie posted this, it started a firestorm," added Columbus resident Charlie Miller.

Sparked by thousands of comments, hundreds of posts, all about students' lunch trays being taken away and thrown in the trash, Burford and Miller say this was the beginning of a school lunch revolution.

"I was in tears in the car after school," Burford said. "I guess for me just the idea of a child going through the lunch line thinking they're fixing to eat, they've made their selections and having that taken back and knowing that it's being thrown out instead of given to them that just broke my heart, I couldn't just sit there and say oh well you know… things happen."

The two say there are two things you can do in life – you can sit back and say that's terrible and move on, or you can say it's terrible and do something about it. They chose to do something about it.

"So we started calling and everybody was very helpful, Susan Schlader at the nutrition department was eager to take phone calls I know she's gotten quite a few," Burford said.

Research showed the two that there was work to do to fix the issue at hand.

"I think most people think the school system gives money to lunch system but they don't give a dollar to it," Miller said. "It's all federally funded plus what they're taking in at the cash register so really they're running a really tight budget."

"School nutrition has its own budget, we don't get any money from the Muscogee County School District general fund, we are self-funded, so it's very important that we have revenue coming in to cover our expenses we have whether its food, supplies, labor, chemicals… employee benefits, it all falls under our budget," Schlader said.

The current 2016-2017 school year budget is more than $20 million. Schlader says this also includes serving 33,000 students – more than 25,000 lunches and a total of six million lunches a year.

The USDA says that a school nutrition program cannot assume debt against the program, and nonpayment is considered a debt by federal regulations. That $3,500 debt is being erased.

"It all started with a phone call that someone had started a pay it forward campaign to help pay for school lunches and we were ecstatic," Schlader said.

"Somewhere between 3500 and 400 of all the donations… maybe three weeks we were kind of surprised," Miller said.

Burford said this was the community's short term fix for the issue.

Thirty-eight schools in the Muscogee County School District are community eligibility provision schools, meaning that 40 percent of children in the school are certified by the state of Georgia as a homeless child, foster child, a SNAP recipient or temporary assistance for needy families.

"The ultimate goal is to get those 15 schools under the same program," Burford said.

"I would love to have our entire school district as CEP," Schlader said.

New statistics arrive every April determining if schools will be eligible for the program. Schlader encourages parents to fill out a free and reduced lunch form to see if they qualify.

"We love providing for our kids in Muscogee County and making sure they have healthy nutritious meals every day we work very hard to do that," Schlader said.

Schlader says they are adjusting procedures in the lunchroom and are no longer taking lunch trays away from students.

Meanwhile, parents and the community are working with local businesses on potential sponsorships for lunches in school.

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