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A Salt Lake City school cafeteria worker’s recent decision to take lunches away from 32 students with unpaid meal tabs spread quickly online as readers of news accounts reacted with outrage.
But school nutrition leaders say the problem of unpaid lunch bills extends far beyond that single school, challenging district leaders around the country who must manage self-sufficient lunchroom budgets with tight operating margins while being sensitive to the needs of the children they serve.
The coverage even got the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which assured state school chiefs in a Feb. 11 letter that it considered the worker’s actions “an isolated incident,” and that it would soon convene a group to compile best practices for addressing unpaid meal balances.
The School Nutrition Association has called upon theto districts on the issue, listing it among its top policy priorities for 2014.
“There’s so little information for the decisionmakers to look at when trying to decide how to manage the problem in their own districts,” said Diane L. Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the association, which represents 55,000 student-nutrition professionals.“We think it would be a great benefit if the USDA provided some guidance on how to respond to kids in a compassionate manner.”
Such guidance would provide direction to district leaders and some authority to nutrition professionals, who are often questioned and criticized for the way they handle school lunchroom debts.
Districts currently operate under an inconsistent patchwork of policies, Ms. Pratt-Heavner said.
Some districts refuse to serve lunches to students with overdrawn balances; others provide alternative meals, such as peanut butter sandwiches, to students who can’t pay. Some districts communicate with parents through students—placing reminder stickers on their clothes or notes in their backpacks—while others use online accounts to keep children out of the payment process.
Episode in Utah
Cable news commentators and Salt Lake City residents quickly agreed that the city’s Uintah Elementary School did not handle students’ unpaid meal balances properly when an employee took the students’ freshly served lunches out of their hands and threw them in a trash can in view of their classmates last month. The students were given replacement meals of milk and fruit instead.
The action was a violation of the district’s procedures, district leaders told the school board this month. Some of the children’s parents weren’t previously notified that they had negative balances, and some weren’t given enough time to remedy the situation before workers took action.
Workers will never take a student’s meal away again, said district spokesman Jason Olsen.
Two employees remain on paid leave while the district investigates the incident, Mr. Olsen said, and student-nutrition leaders have put new procedures in place in response.
Under those procedures, the district will communicate directly with parents about meal balances, providing weekly phone calls when a student’s balance falls below $10 and daily phone calls for families with a negative balance.
But those actions came too late to stop the swell of national response to the incident.
After news outlets picked up on the story, two Utah state senators ate lunch with the school’s students. John Lucas III, a basketball player for the Utah Jazz, gave free tickets to one of the affected students and his friends, and said he planned to make a contribution to the school’s lunch program. And a Houston man, inspired by the Salt Lake City story, settled the lunch-account balances of 60 local elementary school students.
Parents at a Salt Lake City school board meeting earlier this month called the taking of the students’ lunches wasteful, bullying, and stigmatizing.
“Shaming kids for something they have no control over is wrong,” one mother said. “It’s bullying, plain and simple.”
The 23,500-student Salt Lake City district is carrying about $15,000 in outstanding lunch fees, officials said. The district expects to spend nearly $13 million on student nutrition programs this year, according to a budget posted on its website. Lunch bills go unpaid for a variety of reasons, officials said, including family financial struggles and miscommunication.
Schools around the country are struggling with the same issue, some carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid debts. The problem has worsened in recent years, mirroring weak national economic conditions, student-nutrition professionals said.
Of 521 nutrition leaderslast August, 79.7 percent reported steady or increasing levels of unpaid meal debt in their programs in the 2012-13 school year.
Districts have responded to the problem in a variety of ways, with everything from adopting easier online payment systems to hiring collection agencies to recover unpaid debt.
The federalrequires the USDA to review state- and district-level policies on extending credit or providing alternative meals to students with unpaid meal tabs.
The law also requires the agency to prepare a report detailing the feasibility of setting a national policy for addressing unpaid meals that takes into account overt identification of affected children, assistance for qualifying families with free and reduced-price lunch enrollment, and the financial impact of such a policy at the local level.
In his Feb. 11 letter to state school chiefs, USDA Under Secretary Kevin W. Concannon said the agency would soon issue its report, the result of a survey of about 1,500 school food directors, and that it would bring together a “multidisciplinary working group in the near future to solicit best practices and other recommendations in this area.” The letter does not specifically address plans for a national rule related to unpaid meal costs.
The letter also encouraged leaders to ensure that children who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches are enrolled in the program and that agencies set clear policies related to school meal debts.
The USDA’s existing guidance on unpaid meals comes through an answer to a frequently asked question on its website, which calls such policies “matters of local discretion” and adds that schools are not obligated to provide meals to children with overdrawn accounts.
“However, while schools are not obligated to provide meals to children who forget their money, USDA encourages schools to be flexible in this area, particularly with young children and children with disabilities who may be unable to take full responsibility for their money,” the response says.
But that’s an insufficient answer for school leaders, who are juggling growing meal costs associated withwith the sensitive issue of lunch bills, said Ms. Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association.
“It’s a difficult issue for everyone,” she said. “It’s extremely difficult for our members.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 2014 edition of Education Week as Utah Incident Revives Debate on Handling Unpaid Lunch Debts