Las Cruces school district tries to collect unpaid lunch fees

April 22–LAS CRUCES — The typed letter had a brief, handwritten note in the margin: “If account reaches $25.00, your child won’t be allowed to eat. Please send payment.”

The parent of a Picacho Middle School student owed $17.25 in school lunch fees when she received the notification about her child’s account.

Las Cruces middle schools prohibit students from charging more than $25 in lunch fees to their accounts. Once they hit that limit, they can’t purchase food in the school cafeteria.

Parents say their children’s food has been taken away when their debt hits $25, while administrators say they sometimes pitch in their own funds to feed students who reach the limit.

“It’s a very difficult situation because there’s not a really good answer to the problem,” Las Cruces Public Schools Nutrition Services Director Nancy Cathey said. “… It’s the parents’ responsibility, but it’s the child that doesn’t get to eat, and how do you balance that?”

Elementary school students are never denied food despite unpaid fees, according to LCPS officials. High school students must use cash, checks or their student cards but cannot charge to their account.

Unpaid lunch bills currently total nearly $16,000 across LCPS, Cathey said.

More than 20 middle school students across the district owe $25, Cathey said. Meanwhile, nearly 100 elementary students owe $25 or more in lunch money.

The highest amount owed: $97.80 by a DoÃa Ana Elementary School student.

“It is a big financial drain and a concern,” LCPS spokeswoman Jo GalvÃn said of the debts. “We don’t want kids to go hungry.”

One parent of three LCPS students said she doesn’t qualify for reduced-price meals and struggles to pay for their lunches each day.

“My son has had his tray taken away from him and made to walk away because he did not have any more allowance in his account,” she said in an email.

LCPS’ debt policies have attracted some criticism from Las Crucens who likened denying a child food to child abuse.

Parent Tamera Marie Johnson Benavidez said she became “unglued” when she learned her middle school daughter’s tray was taken away because she had a lunch debt.

“There is absolutely no reason, no matter what, a child should be denied a hot meal at school,” she wrote on the Sun-News Facebook page.

Others criticized parents for not providing sack lunches for their children or not footing the lunch bill.

School lunches cost $1.60 for elementary students, $1.85 for middle school students and $2 for high school students.

A middle school student will reach the $25 limit after about 14 unpaid lunches.

Schools send a letter home if accounts are in the red and give students applications for free and reduced-price lunches in case their families qualify for the program, Cathey said. If there’s no response, administrators call parents.

“It (debts) should never, ever, ever be a surprise to the parents,” she said.

LCPS middle schools used to have kids help out in the cafeteria, wiping a few tables to pay off their debts, she said.

“Just enough to jog their brains to remember to bring money,” she said.

Parents complained about the policy, so principals decided to ditch it for the $25 limit.

Now, administrators sometimes prohibit students from attending school dances or purchasing items from school snack bars if they have lunch debt, Cathey said. Some work with counselors to find out if problems at home are affecting a family’s ability to pay, she said.

Mesa Middle School Principal Gabe Jacquez said he and his staff will sometimes pay for students’ lunches out of pocket if they reach the $25 limit.

“We always find a way for kids to eat,” he said.

The food services budget totals $16.2 million this school year, with just under $9 million coming from federal funds. About $1.6 million comes from student fees.

The federal government reimburses the district for lunch costs for each student, but pays more for students who received free or reduced-price lunches than for those who pay full price.

About 60 percent of LCPS students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

The department usually plans for about $10,000 in unpaid lunch fees each year, Cathey said.

LCPS doesn’t send lunch debts to collections, though many parents “suddenly” pay their debts at the end of the school year, she said.

Last year, after months of reaching out to parents, LCPS ended up with $8,000 in school lunch debt, she said.

“Can you imagine if we didn’t work at collecting?” She said.

By the Numbers

$16,000: Total unpaid student lunch fees across LCPS

11: Students who have hit the $25 limit at Mesa Middle, the most of any middle school

18: Students who owe $25 or more at Jornada Elementary, the most of any elementary

$97.80: Highest student lunch debt, belonging to a DoÃa Ana Elementary student

23: Middle school students who have hit the $25 limit

95: Elementary students who owe $25 or more in lunch debts