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USDA Wants to Know How Schools Handle Unpaid Meal Balances

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Unpaid meal balances can be a big challenge for school nutrition directors. When students repeatedly come through the meal line without the means to pay, schools frequently offer them meals, allowing them to accumulate a small debt until their parents pay it off. But too much unpaid meal debt can strain nutrition operating budgets, which typically have tight margins.

What's the responsible way to handle this? The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking comments on state and local policies.

I wrote in February about a Utah cafeteria worker who was put on leave after taking lunches away from students with unpaid debts, only to throw the meals in the trash. The incident sparked strong responses around the country, and benevolent strangers even reported to some schools to pay off all unpaid balances. But schools can't always rely on good Samaritans to help in these situations. This is an ongoing problem. As I wrote then:

"The coverage [of the Utah incident] 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 the USDA to issue clearer guidance to 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.' "

The USDA's existing guidance on unpaid meals is minimal. It says schools participating in national meal programs aren't obligated to provide meals to students with overdrawn accounts, but that the agency "encourages schools to be flexible in this area."

But the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 includes a provision that requires the agency to examine current state and district policies and to explore "the feasibility of establishing national standards for extending credit to children by allowing meal charges, establishing national charges for alternate meals which might be served, and providing recommendations for implementing those standards."

So the agency's Food and Nutrition Service division, or FNS, is seeking comment on such a policy. 

"FNS considers access to healthy school meals including nutritious foods a critical function of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs," the agency said in a request for comment. "Evidence shows that children who regularly eat healthy school meals perform better in the classroom and are less likely to be overweight. However, FNS also recognizes that allowing children to 'charge' school meals can have financial impacts on individual schools and even school districts."

The comment period closes Jan. 14. You can submit a comment or view existing comments here.

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