The school year is over, but food service directors are still trying to collect unpaid lunch money from parents who didn’t or maybe couldn’t pay for the meals.
“I’m sitting on about 150 letters now that will let parents know that the (overdue) amount will carry over to next year and even until their child graduates from high school,” said Heidi Hibbs food service director for the Mainland Regional, Somers Point and Linwood school districts.
A survey by The New Jersey School Boards Association released Tuesday found that more than half of the 81 school districts responding said unpaid school lunches are a problem in their district. Almost a third said it is a recent problem, but another 23 percent said it has been a problem for years.
A majority of the districts said they continue to feed the child, though they may limit their selections to a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, which is added to the amount due. Hibbs said she started giving children a salad, a healthy option but one they may not like, encouraging them to pressure their parents to pay the bill.
Unpaid lunch debt is a growing national problem according to the School Nutrition Association, which addressed the issue at its conference in March. The Columbus Ohio school district earlier this year hired a collection agency to go after $900,000 owed by 6,000 students according to media reports.
Only 1 percent of the NJSBA survey respondents said they used a collection agency. Most send reminders or phone parents, but 19 percent said they will withhold some student privileges until the balance is paid.
With new nutrition standards raising the cost of providing lunch, the SNA has also asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish national regulations on how schools should respond. Under current regulations school districts are not required to provide meals to a child, leaving the decision up to local district.
“It’s frustrating because there is no good guidance,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the SNA. “Districts deal with it in drastically different ways. Some just say no money, no meal. Others will provide a cold lunch, but they may even get criticized for that.”
Local food service directors say they do not want to deprive a child of lunch, especially if that child may later end up in the nurse’s or principal’s office because they are acting out or feeling ill because they are hungry.
Almost all survey respondents said they will provide at least something basic like a cheese sandwich.
Hibbs said Mainland Regional High School has a no-charge policy but students usually just borrow money from a friend. Most of the issues are in elementary schools, especially among families eligible for the reduced-fee lunch, which may only cost 40 cents, or about $72 a year.
“They think it should be free, or they just don’t pay it, ” Hibbs said. “But it adds up. Some will just come in and pay it all off at the end of the year.”
Another problem is families who are struggling to pay their bills, but may still make too much money to qualify for the federal free lunch program, or a few parents who just don’t seem to care because they know the school won’t let their child go hungry.
For the most part the amounts are not high, but they add up. School districts are expected to fully fund their meal programs through the fees they receive, so food service directors are very conscious about not operating at a loss.
Galloway Township food service director Robbin Remster said the issue is a chronic problem, but not a major one. Families still owe the district almost $3,700 according to school business administrator Timothy Kelley, but Remster said families are still coming in to pay what they owe.
“We continue to send reminders home through the summer,” she said.
Most schools now operate using a debit card system and will allow students to run up a tab of $10 to $25 before limiting what the child can order. Remster said sometimes parents just forget to replenish their account, or don’t realize how much their child has been charging. If balances keep rising they will include the application for the free and reduced-fee lunch program with their letter.
“Sometimes people don’t want to apply because they’re embarrassed,” Remster said. “But since the recession, we’re all in the same boat now. We try to help people, but we also stay on top of the balances due.”
Hibbs said they do stress that the balance does not go away, but just carries over to the next year. She has one family with three children that owes hundreds of dollars, but so far has just ignored her letters.
“But I do get some parents who come in the day before school starts to pay off their balance from the previous year,” she said.