IOU Blues

FoodService Director - What I Learned - Barbara Lloyd The Edmonds (Wash.) School District had to learn the hard way that allowing students to charge meals hurts the bottom line. Barbara Lloyd, foodservice director, had to put a new policy in place to help repair some of the damage done by kids charging to negative accounts. Here, Lloyd talks about how she turned the problem around.

FoodService Director - What I Learned - Barbara LloydIn the 20,000-student Edmonds (Wash.) School District, Barbara Lloyd, foodservice director, had a major problem with students charging meals to accounts with negative balances. The debt from such charges was more than $200,000. Lloyd knew the policy needed to be changed to reduce the amount owed. This fall, a new policy went into effect that is lowering the debt. Lloyd recounts the change and how she learned that communication with parents is essential when changing a policy.

“We had to change our IOU policy because of the large outstanding debt. For the past three years, we fed students a reimbursable meal and let them accrue debt without limit.

We tried a variety of methods to communicate with parents regarding the amount of debt they were accruing. This included sending notices home in backpacks and calling families. Quarterly we mailed letters home for anyone K-12 who had debt greater than $25. We instituted online payments through, where parents could pay online and be notified of negative or low balances. Despite this, negative balances continued to grow.

Starting Oct. 1, we instituted a safety net meal program. We allow K-12 students to charge meals up to $15. At the elementary level, once they accrue that $15 debt, they are given a safety net meal, which consists of a cheese sandwich, a box of raisins and an 8-ounce milk. Once they receive two safety net meals, we notify the principal and the principal gets involved with the family. The students continue to receive an unlimited number of safety net meals.

At the secondary level, the student is allowed two safety net meals. After that, if they don’t bring money and they haven’t paid off the $15 debt, they can purchase a safety net meal for $1.

Our outstanding debt is now down to $152,000. The number of safety net meals that we are giving out has steadily declined. In October, we were using 47 safety net meals per day. Now we are down to 29, so I think parents have really gotten the message that they are responsible for keeping their accounts current.

Some parents thought the new policy was restrictive and that we should offer a full meal. But there were even more parents who thought that people shouldn’t be allowed to charge at all. They thought that we should even go as far as to go out and assign collection agencies. It was quite the firestorm at the beginning of the year, but things have really calmed down now.

The biggest lesson I learned was that there is no such thing as too much communication with the family. No matter how much we think we have communicated with the families ahead of time in terms of forming the new policy—we sent out forms in the summer and put it up on our Web site—there are always going to be people who somehow didn’t hear it and didn’t get the message. For those people, it’s a difficult transition.
Looking back on it now, I wish that we had tried even more ways to communicate and had started earlier in the process. I think that would have helped in the implementation. Maybe if we’d intervened before the debt got so large, there would have been less of an emotional reaction from the community. Two hundred thousand dollars is a large debt. The district and foodservice department know that hungry children can’t learn and we were trying everything we could before we stopped the policy that had been put into place.

This is an issue that many districts are struggling with, but as we are all being held more accountable for our operations, it’s a hard thing to tell a little second grader that, ‘I’m sorry you are out of money and I can’t give you the regular meal.’ I learned to be extremely sensitive to the community and start early if you are going to change a policy that is already in place and use any means necessary to be in touch with them.”



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