Soaring School Lunch Debts Driving Pennsylvania Districts to Collection Agencies
At the end of last school year, taxpayers paid off nearly $30,000 in meal debt that Quakertown students racked up.
The unpaid meals were considered bad debt, and covered with money in the district’s general fund budget. That’s why the school board is considering a drastic measure that some other area districts have already taken—a policy that would send any student’s unpaid meal debt to a collection agency when the balance exceeds $1,000. Under the proposal, Quakertown students could be prevented from participating in events like school dances and graduation ceremonies.
The plan, expected to be voted on this month, might seem harsh, but in just a month of school, Quakertown Community School District students and their families already have racked up $4,000 in meal debt this school year—$1,000 ahead of this time last year. That $4,000 is expected to increase as the school year goes on.
Zach Schoch, Quakertown’s chief operating officer, said there are two reasons for considering a new policy.
“One was the ballooning of our student lunch debt that led us to create a line item in the general fund to cover the bad debt,” Schock said.
The other was a change to a 2017 state law that banned schools from stigmatizing children for having debt, a practice known as “lunch shaming.” Now districts can take away student privileges, such as school dances or attending graduation ceremonies, for unpaid meals if the same restrictions apply for library fees and overdue books.
The amendment also allows schools to give “alternative meals” to students who owe more than $50 and aren’t eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines based on poverty levels. But it’s unclear what districts are eligible because superintendents were told in August the new law doesn’t apply to schools that have any students in the federal meal program.
Quakertown’s proposed policy is the new reality for districts across the country dealing with exploding student lunch debt and pressure to drop “lunch shaming” as a recourse.
Nationally, 75 percent of school districts that responded to a 2019 School Nutrition Association survey reported unpaid lunch debt at the end of the 2017-18 school year. Districts often try to contact parents about unpaid debt through letters and phone calls, but when they have little response, they look at alternatives. A Luzerne County school district made national headlines earlier this year when it warned parents their children could end up in foster care for unpaid lunch bills.
In Lehigh and Northampton counties, it’s likely that no district has meal debt as high as Bethlehem Area. It’s the Lehigh Valley’s second largest district with 14,000 students, almost 60 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch, meaning the district does not qualify under the new law changes to offer alternative meals for students with debt exceeding $50. At the end of the last school year, Bethlehem Area’s debt was almost $250,000.
That was a significant increase from August 2018, when the district saw a $155,000 meal debt. Back then, the school board approved the district partnering with a collection agency to recoup the debt. The Bethlehem Area Public Library and parent groups from other Lehigh Valley school districts pitched in with fundraisers to offset the debt and raised $17,000, Chief Financial Officer Stacy Gober said. Thomas Jefferson Elementary was chosen as the school to receive the money from the fundraisers because the school had a reasonable amount of debt last fall that could be paid off. But the money raised is a small drop in the buck of the district’s debt.
“The number is large, and it is not an easy challenge to solve,” Superintendent Joseph Roy said.
In the past, districts had a limit on how many meals indebted students could receive and would provide students who had debt with an alternative meal, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, that effectively broadcast their debt.
Pennsylvania banned lunch shaming a year after a cafeteria worker in a Western Pennsylvania district did not follow the school’s policy of refusing a hot meal to a student who had more than $25 in lunch debt. The story made national news. Experts say the practice of lunch shaming stigmatizes children and places blame on them for their parents being unable or to refusing to pay meals.
That’s why districts point to the law change for the increase in meal debt. Four years ago, Northampton Area’s debt was under $6,000. At the end of the 2018-19 school year, the district was almost $30,000 in the red for unpaid meals.
All districts have a different way of handling meal debt. While Quakertown paid off unpaid meals it had last year with money in the budget, taxpayers also subsidize the debt in the Northampton Area School District only to allow high school seniors to graduate. That was just $233 out of the total meal debt.
The Salisbury School District, with less than 2,000 students, does not cover any of the meal debt it has. So it’s still trying to recoup the $7,450 students have racked up—the highest meal debt it has ever had, according to Superintendent Randy Ziegenfuss.
This year, Salisbury has a new policy: If a student has an account balance of more than $50 in May, the district will send a letter to the parents warning a collection agency will be used if the debt is not paid by the last day of school in June. If the balance remains unpaid in August, Salisbury will forward the debt to a magistrate.
Lunch debt isn’t an issue in the Allentown School District, where all students receive free and reduced-price lunches because of the district’s high poverty rate.
Free and reduced-price meals, funded by the Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program, are provided to children whose families meet certain income thresholds. A family of four would have to earn less than $33,475 a year to qualify for free lunch, or less than $47,638 to get discounted meals.
Households with slightly higher incomes are more likely to struggle, experts on poverty and nutrition say, although it’s hard to determine why families aren’t paying the bills. Some may be financially struggling and don’t qualify for lunch discounts, others may qualify but haven’t applied for the free lunch program, and some may be ignoring the debt.
That’s why Northern Lehigh, with about 1,500 students, is boosting efforts to let parents know they can apply for free and reduced lunches. The district faced meal debt of about $6,000 last year, which Superintendent Matthew Link called “significant” for a district that size.
“In years past, we have also had anonymous donors cover the lump sum debt at the end of the year, but in those years, the debt was in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands,” Link said.
Northern Lehigh hasn’t taken the collection agency route but hasn’t ruled it out, Link said. The district tries to support families, he said, but won’t ignore the problem and continues to contact delinquent families.
“Unfortunately, some families simply cannot pay or refuse to pay, even through payment plans,” he said.
The Salisbury School District, with less than 2,000 students, does not cover any of the meal debt it has. So it’s still trying to recoup $7,450—the highest meal debt it has ever had, according to Superintendent Randy Ziegenfuss.