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How Should Schools Handle Unpaid Lunch Debts?

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unpaid school lunch bills, lunch shaming

Unpaid school lunch balances that threaten to upend tight food service budgets are a sticky issue long known to district leaders and cafeteria workers but not often considered by the public at large.

School food service directors operate budgets with very little margin to absorb unpaid debt, and sometimes those unpaid meal bills pile up for reasons other than poverty that keeps families from paying them. A student may be so disorganized that a note about lunch money never makes it home to her parents, for example.

And, in some cases, low-income families who would qualify for free or reduced-price lunches don't deal with the red tape it takes to enroll, leaving them struggling to keep up with their students' meal tabs.

So how should schools respond when a student has a growing unpaid school meal bill? As I wrote previously, there's no easy answer to that question, and schools have a variety of responses and policies.

"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," I wrote after a Salt Lake City cafeteria worker took lunches away from 32 students with unpaid meal tabs. "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."

Schools will soon have to make those policies clear—and public. A regulation from the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires schools to set consistent policies for unpaid meals by the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. 

A recent New York Times article about "lunch shaming" spread quickly around the internet, drawing public outrage after readers heard for the first time about schools that throw out meals, require children to clean tables, or stamp students' arms with the message "I need lunch money." The story came after New Mexico instituted the Hunger-Free Students' Bill of Rights, "which directs schools to work with parents to pay their debts or sign up for federal meal assistance and puts an end to practices meant to embarrass children," the Times reported. Strangers on Twitter, concerned about the problem, have anonymously paid off thousands of dollars of unpaid meal debt at school districts around the country since December 2016 with a renewed flurry of interest after the recent Times article.

The School Nutrition Association has long pushed for more guidance on the issue, which vexes many school nutrition leaders, the organization says:

"Unfortunately, for under-funded school meal programs, unpaid school meal debt can become a critical problem that can impact the quality of meals for all students. SNA's 2016 School Nutrition Operations Report found that about three quarters of school districts had an unpaid student meal debt at the end of last school year, an increase from 70.8% of districts reporting debt in 2014. Additionally, 37.7% report that the number of students within the paid or reduced-price category who do not have funds to pay for breakfast or lunch has increased from the 2014/15 to 2015/16 school years."

School nutrition leaders also hope programs like the community eligibility provision, which lets high-poverty schools serve free meals to all students without the typical qualification process, can help address the problem.

"Healthy school meals are just as important to academic achievement as the textbooks that students receive," SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays said in a statement. "We all need to work together to ensure every student has access to the nutrition they need to succeed." 

Photo: AP file


Further reading about school lunches and student nutrition:

Cafeteria Incident Renews Debate on School Lunch Debt

Utah Cafeteria Leader Placed on Leave After Taking Student Lunches

Fact Check: DeVos Doesn't Control Who Gets a 'Free Lunch'

School Meal Programs Extend Their Reach

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