Debt mounts as school lunch shaming ends

Districts eliminating lunch shaming by providing meals for any student who cannot pay may face an unintended consequence: massive debt, sometimes reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A 2016 School Nutrition Association survey found that 76 percent of districts have such debt. If the money becomes unrecoverable, the district’s general fund must fill the gap.

“This is an incredibly tough issue—the school nutrition staff know how important meals are to kids’ academic success, and want to make sure that meals are available to any child who wants one” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, the Nutrition Association’s director of media relations.

“But those meals, unfortunately, are not funded for kids who are not eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. The district has to cover the cost of food and labor.”

Denver’s cautionary tale

In August 2017, Denver Public Schools began guaranteeing a full lunch to all 92,000 students in the district—whether or not they could pay. As a result, debt rose from $13,000 in the 2016-17 academic year to $356,000 in the 2017-18 academic year.

Sidebar: Recovering lunch debt

The district began selling snacks such as chips to offset costs, and generated about $41,000 in revenue that will go toward the debt. A $100,000 grant from the district Medicaid department paid off the debt incurred by students who later qualified for meal benefits.

The rest of the money will come from the general fund, says Theresa Hafner, Denver Schools’ Executive Director of food services.

To solve the problem moving forward, Denver is encouraging all families to complete an application for meal benefits every year, Hafner says.

“Administrators need to know that for a family who qualifies for meal benefits and for a family who does not pay for their students’ meals, it feels the same” Hafner says.

“However, the family who does not pay for their students’ meals is most likely impacting the district’s ability to provide educational services, because funds that would otherwise be used in the classroom are being diverted to pay for unfunded student meals.”

Dealing with debt

Legislation in Iowa, New Mexico and New York requires districts to serve students a meal, regardless of their ability to pay.

Other states are introducing similar legislation, which means that debt incurred from these laws will likely become a greater problem moving forward, Pratt-Heavner says.

A USDA mandate stipulated that by 2017-18, all school meal programs must develop policies for covering meal debt.

Administrators should work with their nutrition directors to improve the system. (See sidebar for solutions.)

“Meal debt can become a big constraint on school nutrition professionals’ efforts to serve all students” Pratt-Heavner says.

“We all need to work together to find a way to be compassionate to students who don’t have funding in their meal account.”

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