By Erin Roll

Seventy-six percent of school districts throughout the U.S. report having unpaid meal debt by students.

Montclair closed out its school year with students owing the district $100,000 in lunch debt.
School lunch programs operate on tight budgets. While 50 percent of the programs are funded through federal and state reimbursements, meal sales make up the rest of the budget.

Under the policy on the district’s books, if a student forgets to bring lunch or money to buy breakfast or lunch, the school will provide a meal with the understanding that the student will pay the next school day or shortly thereafter.

If a student’s breakfast or lunch bill is in arrears of $50 or more, the district will send a notice to the student’s parents. If payment is not made within 10 days, the district will send a second notice. If payment is not made within 10 days of the second notice, the parents may be asked to meet with the principal at their child’s school.

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Business Administrator Emidio D’Andrea said the district had never denied a student a meal due to lack of funds.

“The last thing you want is the person at the register to say, ‘We’re not giving you a meal,’” D’Andrea said.

The district will be taking another look at its policies on how to proceed when meal balances go into the negative.

Some parents claim, however, that their children had been charged for lunches that they had not ordered. D’Andrea confirmed that the district had received a large number of calls from parents challenging their child’s school lunch bill.

Parents’ easy access to children’s meal balances and to place restrictions on the account, and easy access to applications for free and reduced-price lunch online, can help districts manage meal debts, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a national organization that tracks data on school lunch programs across the U.S.

Last year, Congress asked the USDA to look into the feasibility of a national policy for addressing unpaid meal debt. Ultimately, it was decided that school lunch debt would be addressed on the local level, but that every district would have to have a policy on its books. Many districts already had a policy in place, Pratt-Heavner said.

A debt that is delinquent may be carried over to the next year, with the possibility of settling it with the district. But if the debt becomes “unrecoverable,” or “bad” debt, then it is the school district’s responsibility to pay, and the district cannot use federal funds to reconcile the debt.

School Nutrition Association reported that the number of districts across the U.S. that had unpaid meal debt increased from 70 percent in 2014 to 76 percent at the end of the last school year. Additionally, about 37 percent of students in reduced-price lunch programs do not have the funds to pay for their subsidized meals. In Montclair, students receiving reduced meals pay 30 cents for a breakfast and 40 cents for a lunch.

Some states, such as Colorado, have eliminated the reduced-price co-pay, with good results, Pratt-Heavner said. “That is incredibly helpful because those families who are eligible for reduced-price are still low-income.”

Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs for the Food Resource Action Center (FRAC) based in Washington, D.C., said three out of four school districts nationwide have reported having student unpaid meal debt, ranging from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands in larger districts.

FitzSimons noted that New Jersey just passed a law requiring districts to report unpaid meals numbers to the state.

FRAC guidelines on how to address school lunch debt include no “shaming” in the cafeteria toward students in the free meal programs and that all communication on student lunch debt should be with parents, not children.

“If a family is already struggling, accruing debt can make things more difficult,” FitzSimons said. A co-pay of 30 cents may not sound like much, but it can add up, she added.

In Montclair, the lunch copay adds up to about $72 a year. Unpaid lunch debt becomes “bad” debt for the family, and the school district becomes responsible for it. However, if the school district waives the co-pay for reduced-price lunch, then the school can have those costs passed along to its school nutrition account, FitzSimons said.

Schools should also pay attention to which families are starting to accrue debt, FitzSimons said, and reach out to them to help address it. Many low-income families will see their income fluctuate during the year. And in a state like New Jersey, where the cost of living is expensive compared to much of the country, it can be hard for a lot of families to make ends meet, she said.