Schools are boiling in school-lunch debt

Schools nationwide are feeling the pinch of unpaid school lunches, as more news reports show debt rising every week.

As of Oct. 14, Virginia Beach City Public Schools said unpaid lunch bills have increased to $237,268 since the district scrapped a program of serving only a cheese sandwich to students who were delinquent, reports Students can now eat school lunches and add $2.75 per plate to their tabs.

VBCPS has raised prices, reached out to parents via email and phone, and sent some accounts to the city’s collection office, to no avail. "It's something we're constantly trying to figure out. Ask me in a few months and we'll probably have a different answer," John Smith, VBCPS’s director of food services told PilotOnline.

Turning delinquent accounts over to collection agencies is a route districts are increasingly taking. FoodService Director recently reported that Minn.-based Anoka-Hennepin School District hired a collection agency for the $160,000 debt it is owed.

According to Noah Atlas, tdirector of the district’s child-nutrition program, the accrued I.O.U.s came from only 1 percent of students—370 students out of the district’s 38,000.

The collection agency will start contacting indebted families in January.

Other districts are no longer giving lunches on credit to students who are already in arrears. But the business-driven decision often backfires. This fall, Missouri’s Columbia Public Schools decided to limit delinquent students to a cheese sandwich, apple and water. The district changed its mind because of the backlash from parents. The district’s unpaid lunch charges hit $130,000 in July.

After ending last school year with $3,327 in lunch debt, Virginia-based Staunton City Schools  this fall, mandated $25 as the cap for accrued lunch debt before a student is given an alternate meal, the News Leader reported.

Amanda Warren, coordinator of the district’s nutrition program told News Leader that although unpaid bills hurt their program, they would not deny students a meal.

“Parents know there are no repercussions and students know the same thing. They know we’ll feed them,” said Walter Campbell, executive director of the nutrition services department at Charleston County School District—which has a debt of more than $500,000, The Post and Courier reports. reported earlier this summer that residents of Franklin County in Kentucky washed cars for several days, donating the more than $400 to Franklin County Public Schools to help pay its accrued lunch debt of $21,000. “We’re going to do this until the deficit goes away. And if that takes a year then so be it,” Scott Ellis, a Franklin County resident, told WKYT.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesman for the SNA, told FSD that school nutrition professionals are passionate about ensuring students have access to healthy meals. But when families pay to fail for them, the expense can impact the quality of the food service for all students.

In the association’s State of School Nutrition 2014 Report, nearly 71 percent of districts reported that their school nutrition program had student meal debt by the end of the prior 2012-13 school year.

Key findings indicated that although the median debt was $2,000 per district, the amount of debt ranged (depending on the size of the district) from $2.00 to $4.7 million.

“Unpaid meal charges are a tough issue for any school district to manage, particularly now that the updated nutrition standards have raised the cost of producing school meals,” Pratt-Heavner said. “Many districts are struggling to cover those costs, leaving less funding to offset unpaid meal costs.”

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