Unpaid student lunch debt presents challenges to New Jersey school districts, according to an informal survey done by School Board Notes. Slightly more than half of respondents termed it a problem in their district.
The unpaid debts aren’t a problem only in New Jersey. Across the country, districts are struggling with unpaid lunch debt as the ailing economy brings more students to school without lunch money. When the School Nutrition Association, a national organization of school nutrition professionals, surveyed 964 of its members in February, 53 percent said they had seen increases in the number of students unable to pay for lunch. The organization has called on Congress to require the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to establish national regulations on how all schools must respond to requests for unpaid meals and how to manage the debt incurred by providing them with help to ease the financial burden on school meal programs. There is currently no federal policy.
One measure of the financial burden some school districts are facing: According to recent news reports, the Columbus, Ohio city school district hired a collection agency to recover about $900,000 in unpaid lunch debts from almost 6,000 students. In New Jersey, this issue is complicated by the fact that the state's Accountability Regulations require district food service operations to be self-sufficient. The recent 30-Second Survey in School Board Notes queried readers about the issue and about what districts are doing to collect the debt.
Over Half Cite Debt as Problem The survey asked whether unpaid lunch debt is a problem. Among survey respondents, 36 percent said it is not a problem or is a very small problem. But nearly 31 percent said it has recently become a problem and nearly 23 percent said it has been a problem for years. (Figures in the chart below have been rounded off.)
Collection attempts What’s a district to do about unpaid lunch debt? Readers were asked which strategies their district employed. The most common answers included sending letters home to families, emailing and calling families, and revoking certain privileges. (Note: The percentages in the chart below add up to more than 100 because respondents were allowed to choose more than one answer.)
Among the strategies mentioned in the comments for “other” were:
The food service director acts as a bill collector for the district, making many phone calls.
We give a limited selection of lunch items.
We are at a loss as to how to proceed.
We hold report cards until the debt is paid.
Teachers remind parents as they see them in the classroom.
Feeding Non-Paying Students The survey also asked what a district’s lunch policy was for students who can’t pay for their lunch. Nearly 70 percent said that a student may get a basic lunch, such as a cheese sandwich, but may not choose other items.
Selected comments about unpaid school lunch debts:
We would never withhold food from a child because the parent has not paid for the lunch or breakfast program, but the problem is getting worse each year and the amount of debt is mounting.
Guidance on proper procedures to be followed would be greatly appreciated.
As our lunch program is more than self-sustaining due to high free/reduced count, we handle the matter individually. I cannot in all good conscience hold people to a fine or lost privileges when they have so many other issues to deal with.
Students who cannot pay their lunches should be under the federal Free or Reduced Lunch Program. If their parents’ income does not qualify for the program, it does not mean they can pay for it, especially if they have several children. I always thought that the income qualifications for the Free Lunch Program are too low. They are not realistic with the times. We wanted to reduce the price of lunches, but we cannot due to state policy restrictions. If we could reduce the price and make it more affordable, the majority of the students would be able to afford lunch and it would be easier on the households with several students. Our district has had a surplus on cafeteria revenues for several years now, which we would like to apply to reduce the lunch price. I personally have two kids in school and I do not qualify for free or reduced lunch due to my income, which is not high for a family of five, and it is sometimes difficult to get the money for lunch, which is $75 a month.
Most of the unpaid debt is from a few parents.
The parents forget or the child gets a breakfast or lunch without parents knowing.
It is a problem, but when parents don't pay it isn't fair for the children to go hungry. For many of our students the only meal they get could be the meal served at school. It is sometimes not an issue of money, but an issue of misplaced priorities.
This has been an ongoing problem for many, many years. A new policy and procedures are being implemented for the upcoming school year.
Eventually the debt is paid (sooner rather than later). We really have not had a problem with this; I guess we are lucky.
In a very poor district, lunch fines are difficult to collect, especially if it is a reduced-lunch student.
It is a tricky situation. There could be a number of parents who are just taking advantage of the situation versus really not being able to pay for lunch. I would question that if a child has a cell phone or iPhone or any communications device with voice as well as internet access that someone's priorities are scrambled.
If a child comes to school without shoes or clothing, what does the district do? They call DYFS? Why aren't we doing that when a child comes to school with no meal or money to purchase one? Ultimately the burden of giving the free meal falls on the food service department. We are now required to be self-sufficient and if we keep allowing these students to charge and not be held accountable our programs are taking the hit. Don't misinterpret what I'm saying. I don't want to see a child go hungry, but when are we going to make these parents/guardians accountable for their actions? You can't walk into a Wawa and say “I want to charge my lunch today.”
We need to ensure all families fill out an application. There may be families entitled, but are either unaware or embarrassed. If we can assure them this is confidential, it may help.
If balances reach a certain predetermined threshold, districts should go through a process of several warnings to the parent(s) and then pass on the debt to a collection agency.
I think it depends on the student and their family's financial situation. Some students are given the money by their parents and spend it on something else and that should be repaid to the school.
It is something you have to accommodate. A hungry child is a terrible thing.