Unpaid lunch accounts put strain on area schools
In a School Nutrition Association 2016 survey, 76 percent of school districts reported meal programs with unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2014-15 school year.
In some cases student lunches were taken away because they had a negative balance, but the Fort Madison School District is not considering that as an option.
Unpaid accounts are not a new issue for U.S. schools. The issue has surfaced in nearby states. In Michigan, a high school student was reportedly left embarrassed and hungry when his lunch was taken and trashed for owing $4.95. A 12-year-old in Texas had his school breakfast dumped over a 30-cent debt. And two years ago in Utah, about 40 students had their lunches seized for unpaid meal debts in a case that caused a national uproar.
To date, for the 2016-17 school year, FMCSD has a negative balance totaling $66,972.18 with 703 accounts – which includes families that have left the district; 467 accounts owing less than $100; and 236 accounts have a negative balance of $100 or more.
Area school districts food service directors and board members are looking into solutions for unpaid lunch accounts.
For FMCSD, Superintendent Erin Slater said the next step is to discuss options to help parents become aware of their unpaid lunch account balances.
According to Slater, the school district currently uses an online system, mail, and calling to notify parents about their negative lunch account balance. Further, the district is looking at a lunch software system that would support text messaging.
“We are looking at additional communication methods to work with parents in paying their negative lunch balances,” said Slater. “We are also looking at whether moving towards an alternative lunch meal for families with large negative balances is an option.”
Parents can also contact the food service department anytime during the school year to arrange to pay an unpaid lunch balance or apply for free and reduced lunches. School districts are reimbursed for those receiving free and reduced lunches.
In some cases, a family may owe as much as $500 and not pay on the balance, but instead buy a $5 meal ticket.
Slater said the next step is to look into what other districts are doing with unpaid lunch accounts, but that ultimately parents are responsible for the unpaid balances and for providing money if their child is to eat school lunch.
“If parents struggle with this we have the federal free and reduced lunch applications that families can fill out at anytime during the school year,” said Slater.
The district is currently in transition with its new food service director – Lisa Kibby, who has been asked to explore options addressing the problem.
Survey data from the School Nutrition Association showed that overdrawn lunch accounts create financial challenges for school districts that are forced to weigh mounting costs against unsatisfied students and families. Slater said fewer resources are available to the district when bills are sent to collection or are not paid.
At Richardson Elementary, 49.1 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch; 41.95 percent of students at Lincoln Elementary get free and reduced lunch; 41.73 percent of students at Fort Madison Middle School are eligible for the program; and 33.89 percent of high school students have free and reduced lunch.
At Central Lee
Central Lee Community School District superintendent Andy Crozier has recommended that the district add policy language to student handbooks regarding procedures for students with negative lunch balances.
Crozier said this policy would make an effort to curb families who have high negative balances each year. Currently, the district only has a handful of students with a negative $100 lunch balance. The board and administration discussed current procedures and how an alternate lunch may be implemented at the elementary level.
At next month’s Central Lee School Board meeting, lunch policies and solutions are expected to be on the agenda. If approved, the revisions will go into effect April 1.
The PreK-12 lunch policy addition will state “students are not allowed to charge lunches over –$100. If a student lunch account runs out, they will receive a notice on Friday from the office. Once a student has an unpaid balance of $100 or higher, they will be given an alternate lunch in lieu of the hot lunch entree.”
Crozier said the alternate lunch would meet the Department of Education nutritional standards.
For the 7-12 grade lunch policy; “students are not allowed to charge or purchase additional entrees or milk if they have a negative hot lunch balance.”
The Keokuk Community School District has tried every means of communication to reach parents about unpaid lunch accounts. Food Service Director Sarah Wetzel says she has tried phone calls, mail, email and text messaging, but still has had no luck in resolving the issue.
The district currently has 290 accounts with an accumulative negative balance of $11,967.20 – 123 of the accounts have unpaid balances less than $100 and 167 accounts owe more than $100.
Wetzel said she is exploring other communication methods, polices and offering an alternative meal to students with unpaid balances.
She said more than half of the district’s students are eligible for free or reduced cost meals. There are 1,107 students on free and reduced lunchs at Keokuk Community School District.
“Free and reduced meals for students ensure every student in the district gets a meal,” Wetzel said. “During the school year, many of our students eat more meals at school than at home. For some children, school meals may be their only regular source of meals.”
Wetzel acknowledged that there are families that have a difficult time paying for school lunches, but are not eligible for reduced lunches.
“All families can apply regardless of income,” Wetzel said. “However, only those families who fall within the required income guidelines will be approved for free or reduced lunch benefits.”
At Hawthorne Elementary School, 74 percent of students receive free and reduced lunches; 66 percent of students at George Washington Elementary School get free and reduced lunches; 58 percent of students at Keokuk Middle School are eligible; and 51 percent of high school students have free and reduced lunches.
Wetzel said she has been working with KCSD Business Manager Heidi Harness to create a clear outlined policy for the district lunch accounts. The policy would outline steps of what would happen in a situation where students’ lunch accounts are past due or unpaid.