A-K Valley schools rein in delinquent lunch accounts but won’t let students go hungry

March 02–Lunch is served in the Alle-Kiski Valley’s schools, even when students don’t have money to pay.

“It is our policy to never deny a student a breakfast or lunch in the Deer Lakes School District,” said spokeswoman Kathy Makuta.

“We will never turn away a student who has a delinquent lunch account,” said Todd O’Shell, spokesman for Freeport Area School District.

How to handle students who come through the lunch line with negative cafeteria balances has been a talking point since a Utah elementary school was criticized for taking away lunches from about 40 students in late January.

When the students went to check out and cafeteria workers realized they were delinquent, their lunches were thrown away and they were handed milk and fruit, according to published accounts.

Local school officials said students always are offered a lunch that meets nutrition guidelines. Some provide the regular lunch to lunch account delinquents, others offer alternatives such as sandwiches.

Allegheny Valley, Freeport Area, Highlands and South Butler County officials said they sometimes will give students an alternative lunch. That option sometimes depends on the age of the student or the amount of delinquency.

“That’s used judiciously,” South Butler spokesman Jason Davidek said. “… Our staff handles things on a case-by-case basis.”

Highlands always provides the regular lunch to elementary students, but high-schoolers may be offered alternatives, district spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski said.

Several districts said they are especially cautious about how they handle delinquencies in the elementary level, since those students likely have little awareness of the account balance or ability to change the situation.

“We don’t do anything at the elementary level because they don’t understand,” Chybrzynski said.

“You can’t fault a student for a parent not making their account whole,” O’Shell said.

Burrell and Deer Lakes always give delinquent students the normal school lunch, but those children aren’t able to buy extra or a la carte items.

Burrell Superintendent Shannon Wagner said the electronic payment system used at Burrell and in most districts has helped cut back on delinquency.

“Parents can see in real time how much they have on their account, how much their children are eating,” she said. “Since we’ve instituted that, it’s made a huge difference in how people keep track of their account.”

Districts use a variety of methods to make sure students and parents are aware of low or negative balances. Electronic messages can be sent when the account is low, sometimes preventing delinquencies from occurring.

Once accounts are in arrears, districts often start with sending home letters, then escalate to phone calls from food service directors, principals or business managers.

In rare cases, districts may have the debt addressed through a local district court.

Stressing the availability of the federal free or reduced- price lunch program and making applications accessible to families can help prevent delinquencies, officials said.

Chybrzynski said the district’s social worker will make home visits with some families to help them navigate the program.

“We definitely encourage families to pursue any kind of discount,” she said. “We don’t feel it is something to be ashamed of.”

According to the federally assisted National School Lunch Program, 30.6 million children ate low-cost or free lunches each school day in 2013, down from a high of 31.8 million in 2010 and 2011. The program operates in more than 100,000 public and private schools and residential child care institutions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture “encourages schools to be flexible in (collecting debt), particularly with young children and children with disabilities” who might not take full responsibility for money, according to Amanda D. Browne, a department spokeswoman.

In some cases, parent-teacher associations or other school organizations may establish funds to pay for lunches for children who forget or lose money, Browne said.

Davidek said South Butler will try a new fundraiser this year: Staff will have an option to wear jeans one day this month in exchange for a donation. The money raised will be used toward student lunch accounts.

Chybrzynski said Highlands includes paying off lunch accounts as one of the “obligations” students must complete before they can participate in prom or graduation.

“We want to keep the delinquencies down without punishing or embarrassing the kids,” she said.

Not only are delinquent accounts a problem, but Chybrzynski said the food service program has been hit with buying more expensive food to meet changes in federal nutrition requirements.

“We’re not trying to cause any more problems for people,” she said, “but it’s something we have to be on top of because we have to run a balanced lunch program.”

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