Districts Draw the Line on School Meal Debt
School districts have resorted to hiring debt collectors, employing constables, and swapping out standard meals for scaled-back versions to try to coerce parents to pay off school lunch debt that, in recent years, appears to have surged as the result of a faltering economy and better record-keeping.
While the average school lunch costs just about $2, when meals go unpaid repeatedly, cafeteria managers have found the debt adds up quickly. In New York City schools, for example, several years of uncollected meal payments led to the accumulation of $42 million in debt.
Ultimately, the burden falls to cash-strapped districts to pay off if school food-service departments can't collect. Nutrition directors, under pressure from school boards about the losses, are clamoring for help from the federal government.
In response, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is testing new methods to curb the problem, which is growing despite new efforts to identify more students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals but whose parents don't apply.
Without a standardized method for dealing with the problem, cafeteria managers say they will continue to butt heads with principals, some of whom say students need to get school meals regardless of what they owe.
"We want our children to be fed," said Meredith Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Davidson County, N.C., district. "At the same time, we want to be fiscally responsible."
Three years ago, Ms. Palmer's 21,000-student district registered $54,000 in unpaid meal debt, leading it to craft a policy that would no longer allow high school students to "charge" meals—just like a credit card but with no interest. But the bulk of such debt in Davidson County, as in many other districts, comes from students in elementary school, especially younger pupils who may not remind their parents they need lunch money.
"Think of a kindergartner saying, 'I need money today for lunch.' They're not going to think about that," said Lisa Nelson, the district's director of child nutrition. They may not remember to tell their parents that they had to charge a meal as a result of not having money, either.
The district, like many, mails application forms for free and reduced-price meals to families in July, weeks before school starts, ample time for them to be filled out, returned to schools, and processed so that students' eligibility begins on the first day of classes.
But many parents whose children qualify for subsidized meals in Davidson County and elsewhere don't apply. In recent years, the USDA has required states to match up families that qualify for food stamps and other federal assistance programs with public school students. That avoids the problem of unreturned forms for some families, but the system can't catch everyone who qualifies and doesn't apply.
A USDA pilot program starting next school year will allow similar matching of school attendance records and Medicaid recipients in six states, including New York.
"Our hope is that this will reduce the number of students whose meal status is incorrectly listed as 'paid' because they have not submitted a lunch-application form," said Marge T. Feinberg, a spokeswoman for New York City schools.
School meal debt, which had been absorbed by the Davidson district, dropped to $41,000 after its policy change for high school students, but that wasn't dramatic enough for school officials.
So last June, the school board adopted a new policy that limits students to accruing no more than $11.75 in debt before they are restricted to having only the option of an alternative meal. Parents are sent another letter at that point informing them of the debt.
Alternative meals are often cheese or peanut butter sandwiches plus servings of fruit and vegetables and a serving of milk—a meal that the USDA will reimburse districts for serving and that contains similar but less expensive forms of the same nutrition as a meal with meat or other protein.
When the debt hits $37.50, a family can be referred to a collection agency, Ms. Nelson said. The district's approach is to wait for at least three families to hit that limit—so using the collection agency is cost-effective—before making such referrals. So far this school year, that hasn't happened.
"I cannot tell you whether it is the change in the meal or the threat of a collection agency," Ms. Nelson said. "But it's something in this policy."
While referring families to collection agencies over school lunch money may sound extreme, other districts are also taking aggressive actions against nonpayers. The 4,900-student Wellesley, Mass., district hired constables to deliver payment-due notices to families.
Nothing prevents a district from adopting such policies. Schools aren't required to provide alternative meals or allow students to accrue lunch debt, although the USDA encourages schools to serve those meals or set up accounts children may draw from if they don't have money to pay for meals and aren't enrolled in the free-meal programs.
As part of 2010's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which reauthorized the Child Nutrition Act and gave the USDA power to change the way school meals look, the agency must examine policies and practices on this issue and decide whether it would be feasible to establish national requirements, an agency spokesman said. The USDA, which oversees the national school lunch and breakfast programs, is now analyzing data on current practices and expects to issue a report on the matter in 2013.
In the 55,000-student San Francisco district, which at one time served free meals to all students because of the level of poverty in the area, "it wasn't part of the school culture to pay for lunch," said Nancy Waymack, the district's executive director of policy and operations.
Letters to parents the first year that the district started closely tracking debt didn't seem to prompt them to pay. Debt soared to nearly $1 million by the 2008-09 school year in the throes of the recession. So the district turned the missives into bills to send the message that "this is something that's owed to the district; it's not a pay-as-you-want-to" system, Ms. Waymack said.
The district has a policy of feeding children who don't pay, even if they aren't registered for free or reduced-price meals.
"We want to honor that while recognizing the district does not have never-ending supplies of funding," Ms. Waymack said. Debt has since dropped to about $335,000 so far for this school year.
One challenge that remains for the San Francisco district and others is the lag between the time eligible children apply for free or lower-cost meals and when their applications get processed. The district has created an online form to shorten the turnaround time, but in some cases students eat for free for a while before their parents apply. Free or reduced-price status isn't retroactive.
"If you've eaten lunch the first week of school, and you're a kindergartner, and if your lunch is $3 every day, you already owe $15 before you turn the form in," Ms. Waymack said.
The Meriden, Conn., school district is surrounded by districts with poverty levels so high that USDA rules allow all students to eat meals at no charge without filling out paperwork. It's likely that a small percentage of students in each of those districts doesn't actually qualify for the free meals.
Then, "people move to Meriden, and they've never paid for a meal in their life," district food-service director Susan Maffé said.
Debt in the 9,000-student district reached more than $60,000 at one point—representing some 22,000 meals—but principals complained when students were served alternative meals, with cafeteria employees being accused of singling out students who couldn't pay.
Food-service workers found themselves in other awkward positions: When meals were requested for field trips, they didn't feel right sending meals only with students who had paid up, Ms. Maffé said.
Eventually, the Meriden school board absorbed the debt—school food-service programs cannot take the loss—allowing all students to start with a clean slate. The board drafted guidelines allowing elementary students with unpaid meal charges to receive alternative meals and banning any food from being served to middle and high school students with charges, overruling the wishes of some principals.
The district added a website so parents can pay in advance for student meals and get a discount for doing so, Ms. Maffé said. Applications for free and reduced-price meals are now mailed to homes in the summer, with postage-paid return envelopes, and the district is working on an online application.
Between the time the guidance took effect in November 2010 and the end of the 2010-11 school year, the district racked up just $845 in unpaid meals, and student participation didn't decline.
Debt hasn't stayed that low, creeping up to about $5,000 this school year, but it's still an improvement from a few years ago, she said.
When Ms. Maffé was hired, she was asked for a writing sample: a letter to parents to collect money for unpaid meals, "not knowing I'd be writing thousands of them," she said.
Vol. 31, Issue 30, Pages 1, 17Published in Print: May 9, 2012, as Districts Tackling Meal Debt