Donation in slain officer’s name wipes out lunch debt
Why Unpaid School Meal Bills Cause Heartburn for Administrators
When students show up to school with unpaid lunch bills, cafeteria workers struggle to respond in a way that doesn’t hurt or stigmatize a child. School nutrition directors say that the issue is more complicated than some people may realize, and that it’s not always poverty that leads to overdrawn lunch accounts. Here’s why unpaid school meal balances can be a challenge for schools, how some are already addressing the problem, and why it may be an appealing issue for the 2020 campaign trail. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., tucked a call for universal free school meals into a sweeping education plan he released last month, citing stories on unpaid student bills.
After a Pennsylvania cafeteria worker quit rather than withhold a lunch from an elementary school student whose family was $25 behind on meal payments, strangers launched viral campaigns to pay down balances in other school districts. A majority of school lunches-68 percent in February-are already free, the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. The federal government will spend about $13.8 billion on the National School Lunch Program this year. Some schools and districts already offer free school lunches and breakfasts universally through a federal program created under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.
Like Oregon, have also expanded the income limits for free school meals, paying the difference for families whose incomes fall above the federal qualifying levels. School meal programs have limited margins for extra expenses, and any uncovered costs present a challenge, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition workers around the country. The organization surveyed its members and found that 75 percent reported unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year. By June 1, that number had reached $104,000 for the current school year.
Americans Are Coming Together to Pay Off School Lunch Debts
You may not be able to make school lunches permanently affordable for these families, but you can help in a smaller way: by helping pay off overdue school lunch balances in a district near you. In December 2016, New York City-based writer Ashley C. Ford managed to raise thousands of dollars with a single tweet that urged people to donate the cost of overdue lunch balances to school districts near them. In Minnesota, donors had raised $100,000 to pay off lunch debts in Minneapolis schools and $28,000 for schools in St. Paul’s.
Schools across the country received thousands of dollars from good Samaritans to pay off kids’ lunch debts. In the Houston-area Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, volunteers are trying to raise $15,500 to pay off student lunch debts. In Austin, an online fundraising campaign collected more than $20,000, enough to pay off all lunch debts in the city’s public schools-and then some. The Loudoun Education Foundation in Ashburn, Virginia is planning to raise $13,000 to cover lunch debts at the county’s public schools. Around 75 percent of the 1000 schools in one survey from the School Nutrition Association had unpaid lunch debt at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, costs the school usually has to cover with its own budget [PDF].
Some critics of school lunch programs suggest that we shouldn’t be charging kids at all-every student should get a meal, no matter how much money they do or do not have. In New York City, a pilot program began offering free lunch to all students at certain public middle schools, regardless of their financial situation, starting in 2014. Other cities, like Chicago, Dallas, and Boston already offer universal free lunch to all public school students. Many school districts can’t afford to offer free lunches to all students meaning that donations can make a huge difference.
School districts chew on student lunch debt
This year, many northern Michigan schools forecast student lunch debt, and without regulation from government to collect those dues, districts have to figure it out on their own. School lunch debt has increased in recent years to the point where the median amount each district carries is just over $3,000, according to the School Nutrition Association – a professional organization that monitors lunches at schools. Scott Little is the executive director of the association, and he says lunch debt in the thousands can hurt smaller school districts in northern Michigan. In the last two years, Suttons Bay High School accumulated about $3,000 of debt from families who didn’t pay for lunches. Suttons Bay Public Schools Superintendent Tim Smith says paying for school lunches is a challenge for some families in his district.
Over the past two years, more school districts in the region have quietly worked with donors to pay students’ debt accounts. This year, in Manistee County, local businesses are working to clear $11,000 of lunch money owed. Traverse City Area Public Schools had their $4,000 of lunch debt paid off last year by local donors. Other districts work out payment plans with parents who are overdue on lunch money. Ludington Public Schools hired a food services position, that mainly looks after the accounts with debt.
Some schools that had debt problems, like Northport and Mancelona, now get free breakfasts and lunches for the entire school, thanks to special state funding. In all the districts, the schools agree that no child will go without a meal.