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Education Funding Opinion

When Students Can’t Pay for School Lunch, Everyone Loses

By Patricia Montague — February 21, 2014 5 min read
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No one wants a child to go hungry, and no one thinks it’s a good idea for students to try learning on an empty stomach. We were all saddened by recent news reports that students with negative balances on their meal accounts had their school lunches dumped in the cafeteria trash.

As the chief executive officer of the School Nutrition Association, or SNA, I represent thousands of school nutrition professionals nationwide who believe every student should receive free, healthy meals as part of the school day because good nutrition is critical to student achievement. In this profession, it is not uncommon to hear about the cafeteria cashiers who give money from their own pockets to students who cannot pay for their lunches.

The women and men working in school cafeterias pour their hearts into making the cafeteria a welcoming place for students to be nourished. So why do news reports, from Utah to Texas to New Jersey, continue to surface about unintended consequences for students who cannot pay for school lunch?

Although every incident is different, each of these “unpaid meal charge” stories indicates a broad and growing national problem. Left unaddressed, these situations reach beyond the cafeteria, potentially threatening district education funds and resources. We all need to work together to develop compassionate policies for responding to children who are unable to pay for their school meals, while managing the cost incurred by the school district.

School meal programs are self-sustaining and financially independent of a school district’s education budget. However, federal regulations prohibit school meal programs from carrying debt from unpaid meal charges from one school year to the next. So when parents don’t pay the balance, and meal programs are unable to cover the costs, school districts are forced to pick up the tab. As a result, many school meal programs have been forced to institute controversial charge policies governing whether, and what, their school cafeterias will serve to students who are unable to pay for a meal.

Research indicates that an increasing number of children arrive in the cafeteria unable to pay for their meals. A 2012 SNA survey of school meal program directors found that 53 percent of school districts were experiencing an increase in unpaid meal charges. Of those facing the increase, 56 percent anticipated that the accumulated debt from those charges would be greater at the end of the school year compared with that of the previous school year. Thirty-three percent anticipated a significant increase in debt.

Research indicates that an increasing number of children arrive in the cafeteria unable to pay for their meals.”

Some meal programs acquire thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars in debt from unpaid meal charges. New York City’s public schools reportedly incurred $42 million in unpaid meal debt between 2004 and 2011. Even districts that prohibit students from charging meals can rack up significant debt by serving students an alternate meal. These meals, often cold lunches with fruit and milk, ensure that students will not go hungry, but still need to be paid for in some way.

The challenge of unpaid meal charges has been exacerbated by rising prices for school meals. School nutrition professionals are always reluctant to raise prices on families, but the “paid meal equity” provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 forced many school meal programs to increase prices regardless of the financial solvency of the program. Other districts have had little choice but to raise prices to keep up with the high cost of preparing meals to meet new federal nutrition standards, which require larger portions of fruits and vegetables on every tray.

School meal programs work hard to enroll qualifying low-income families in the free and reduced-price meal program, but with rising prices and a tough economy, many families who do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals still struggle to cover the cost of school lunch.

As schools try to manage the consequences, the need to help districts create compassionate and sustainable meal-charge policies is more urgent than ever before. Unfortunately, districts have little or no guidance to help them develop these policies.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the National School Lunch Program, affirms that school nutrition programs are not required to provide a complimentary meal to a child unable to pay and says developing charge policies is a matter of local discretion.

As a result, a patchwork of complex policies has been implemented across the nation. Some individual schools allow meal charges; others offer different kinds of alternate meals. Various strategies are used to collect unpaid bills, ranging from calling and emailing parents, sending notes home with students, working with principals to enforce repayment, and even contracting with collections agencies when debts get out of hand. It’s no wonder that parents, administrators, and even cafeteria employees get confused.

The process of developing these policies stirs dissent in communities. Everyone wants children to have access to healthy meals, but financial realities often force meal-program operators and administrators to make tough, unpopular choices.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required the USDA to examine current policies and practices pertaining to unpaid meal charges and report on the feasibility of establishing national standards on meal charges and alternate meals. The law also allows the USDA to proceed with implementing the standards. The School Nutrition Association is committed to working with the USDA to advance this effort so school districts get guidance on how to manage the problem.

In the meantime, as schools and families continue to grapple with this difficult issue, parents, teachers, school administrators, and school nutrition professionals need to work together to address the unpaid-meal problem. School communities should focus on enrolling all eligible families in the free and reduced-price program and identifying a compassionate and fair way to handle meal charges for students who are not eligible but whose families are still struggling in this tough economy.

The process starts by acknowledging the importance of school meal programs to the success of all students, and by recognizing that everyone involved in the discussion has the best interest of students in mind. Working to protect the financial stability of school meal programs will help ensure students have access to healthy, well-balanced school meals that contribute to achievement.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as When Students Can’t Pay for School Lunch, Everyone Loses

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