How FSDs are tackling lunch debt

school lunch

With the USDA’s recent mandate that schools operating on the National School Lunch or Breakfast programs have a written policy on unpaid meals, school officials have put their heads together to come up with best practices to tackle the growing problem. Here’s how some operators are dealing with delinquent accounts, and the lunch shaming often tied to them. 

1. Keeping all channels of communication open

school hallway

When school officials at Amherst-Pelham Regional School District in Amherst, Mass., sat down to plan their updated policy on meal debt, communication was top of mind.

“We are trying to have a policy that enhances the focus on communication within our community as a primary tool for both building relationships with those who may be struggling and ensuring that those collections occur, instead of a more punitive approach to collections,” says Superintendent Mike Morris.

In the past, communication regarding overdue balances happened through students via notices sent home, as well as an alternative lunch. Now, students receive a hot lunch regardless of whether they have outstanding debt, and all communication regarding account balances will occur directly between the district and parents.

Amherst-Pelham will also use the district’s Family Center to act as a liaison to families. Morris says the center adds another channel of communication, especially those families that may be struggling. “[The center] has built a lot of rapport with families and can often communicate in ways that are meaningful,” he says.

2. Tiered notices

notice

Communication has been essential in tackling overdue balances at Richmond Community Schools in Richmond, Mich., as well. This past year, Director of Food Service Sue Bevins began reaching out through email to parents whose children accumulated meal debt. Bevins has since changed her method to give parents earlier notice.

“I used to send an email when it was $25, but I’ve found when I was speaking to parents, they were surprised,” Bevins says. “Many of them said, ‘Why wasn’t I notified of this balance before?’” On alternating weeks, she now calls or emails parents whose children have a negative balance of $10 or more, and sends a letter the following week to those with $25 or more in unpaid meals. 

3. Avoiding the sandwich of shame

cheese sandwich

In Ohio, Cincinnati Public Schools has taken steps to address delinquent accounts while avoiding lunch shaming. Instead of providing a cold cheese sandwich to students with overdue balances, the district limits their meal choice among the regular options to avoid stigmatizing the student.

“For alternative meals, lunch trays are not taken away from a student; however, the student’s entree choice is limited to the featured salad entree that is offered on the menu,” says Food Services Director Jessica Shelly. “This way, the student’s tray looks no different than any other student tray-dining.”

Shelly also says the district employs a five-day grace period for students who are eligible for free meals to receive lunch at no charge while their enrollment application is processed.

“This goodwill goes a long way in connecting with your parents and your community,” Shelly says. “No school nutrition professional ever wants to see a student go hungry or be embarrassed.”

More From FoodService Director

Industry News & Opinion

Howard County Public School System in Ellicott City, Md., will be offering free lunch to students for two days during winter break, The Baltimore Sun reports.

This is the first time the district will be providing meals over winter break. The lunch will be served on Dec. 27 and 28 at two sites in the community.

About 22.2% of the district’s students are enrolled for free or reduced-price meals. The district served 66,276 meals last summer during its summer meal program .

Read the full story via baltimoresun.com .

Industry News & Opinion

Cranston School District in Cranston, R.I., has hired a collection agency to help reduce its lunch debt , NBC 10 reports.

The district’s chief operating officer sent a letter to parents saying that the district would be using a collection agency next year to collect outstanding lunch balances after other collection methods have failed. Parents who owe $20 or more and haven’t paid in the last 60 days will receive a letter from the agency starting Jan. 2, 2019.

Cranston accumulated $95,508 in unpaid lunch balances between Sept. 1, 2016 and June 30, 2018. The district’s meal...

Ideas and Innovation
hot school lunch

As lunch shaming remains in the national spotlight, many school districts have turned away from providing alternate meals, such as a cheese sandwich, to students who can’t pay for lunch. While this ensures that students are provided a full meal and aren’t stigmatized, it has caused some districts to quickly accumulate lunch debt . In order to keep funds under control, school districts throughout the country are now relying on assistance from their communities to defray the cost of some meals.

1. School lunch fairies

Students at Apollo-Ridge School District in Spring Church, Pa.,...

Industry News & Opinion

When looking for a way to get more use out of its Canyon Cafe, open during the weekends only, California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., tried something new: free cooking classes.

Classes are open to students, as well as faculty and staff, and are taught by Campus Dining Executive Chef Michael Albright, according to Mustang News .

The weekday classes, which are capped at 14 participants, have taught attendees how to make items such as probiotic overnight oats and “the perfect turkey.” Interested parties can sign up online via the school’s dining...

FSD Resources