'Secret Santas' in Michigan Are Paying Off Lunch Debt at Elementary Schools
Hamilton County school board looks to tackle unpaid school lunch debt, policy
Hamilton County’s unpaid school lunch debt might grow while the system ensures students have something to eat at school under a potential board of education policy change. A new policy up for discussion at Thursday’s school board meeting would allow high school students to charge up to $40 in meals to their accounts. At the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the district had $38,547 in unpaid school lunch charges. About 7% of K-8 students who pay for their meals at school had an account debt, and the average debt was around $54. Many schools in Hamilton County do not even charge for breakfast or lunch.
If most students at an individual school qualify for the federal free lunch program, then the school can provide free meals to the entire student body through another federal eligibility program. If the board adopts the new policy change and allows high school students to also accrue unpaid lunch charges, Goldberg estimates it could add another $15,800 to the district’s unpaid school lunch debt, bumping the total to about $40,000-$50,000 for the 2019-20 school year. State regulations don’t allow school nutrition programs to carry debt, so unpaid student charges are either collected from families or absolved, with the school system’s general fund picking up the tab. School lunch debt has been a problem plaguing school districts across the country. More than 75% of school districts across the country reported having unpaid student lunch debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to a 2018 report from the School Nutrition Association.
A Rhode Island school district made the news this year when Chobani donated more than $47,000 to pay off the district’s student lunch debt after it was reported the district would give students only cold lunches if they couldn’t pay, according to CNN. A Pennsylvania school district also came under fire this year after a letter was sent to parents threatening that their children would end up in foster care if parents didn’t pay their debts to the Wyoming Valley West School District, according to the Washington Post. Hamilton County school board members said they would welcome local businesses or organizations who are looking to help the school district to pay off student lunch debt. The board will vote on the policy change during its monthly school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.
The other student debt: US kids struggle to pay for school meals
When sisters Hannah and Hailey Hager learned that some of their classmates in Davidson County, North Carolina were struggling to pay for their meals at school, they didn’t see it as someone else’s problem to solve. Hannah, 12, and Hailey, 14, started selling lemonade on weekends to help pay off the roughly $35,000 in lunch debt that schoolkids in Davidson County owed by the end of the last school year. For some advocates, the real solution lies not in paying off school meal debt, but in making school meals free for students. A growing problem Davidson County is just one example of a growing problem across the US. The median amount of unpaid meal debt by school district across the US has soared 70 percent over the past six years, according.
At the close of the last calendar school year, 75 percent of school districts reporting to SNA had unpaid meal debt ranging from $10 to $500,000. US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont proposed year-round, free school meals for all children, and Representative Julian Castro of Texas has said he would expand. The cost of school meals varies widely depending on where you are in the US, but on average, school lunch costs $2.48 for primary schools and $2.74 for secondary schools nationwide, a 2018 SNA study found, while the average breakfast costs $1.46 for primary schools and $1.55 for high schools. A high school student buying breakfast and lunch can end up shelling out about $770 per year- a significant sum for many low- and middle-income families in the US. To put this in perspective, a recent study by the US Federal Reserve found that nearly 40 percent of US households would struggle to pay for an unexpected $400 expense.
US Department of Agriculture, only children whose families live at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line – set at $33,475 for a family of four for the 2019-2020 school year – qualify for free school meals. That means the burden of assisting kids whose families do not qualify for free or reduced-price school meals falls entirely on local districts. Hannah and Hailey Hager have pledged to keep selling lemonade until their district’s school meal debt is paid off. Until it does, Davidson County has the Hager sisters, who have vowed to keep battling school meal debt one lemonade sale at a time.
How You Can Help Students With Lunch Debt
Thanks to the generosity of community members, outstanding lunch debt for hundreds of students in Palm Beach County is a thing of the past. Most recently, a member of the community donated nearly $1,000 to zero out the deficit of 430 students in Jupiter-area schools. Another donor gave $5,000 earlier in the school year. These generous contributions bring the total amount of donations toward school debt this school year to more than $8,600. Even with the continued donations from the community, Palm Beach County students still carry more than $51,000 in outstanding lunch debts.
Lunches in Palm Beach County school cafeterias cost $2.05 in elementary schools and $2.30 in middle and high schools. Breakfast is always free of charge in Palm Beach County schools, regardless of financial need, and students who carry a lunch debt are not denied food, according to Allison Monbleau, the director of the District’s School Food Service department. High school students receive a cheese sandwich and their choice of milk or juice. Students whose families qualify for free and reduced lunches can apply throughout the school year. Donor checks can also be made payable to School Food Service and mailed to their office at 3661 Interstate Park Road North, Suite 100, Riviera Beach, FL 33404.
A member of the SFS department will contact you about the distribution of your donation to a particular school, group, or free and reduced status, if you choose to specify. For questions about donating to the SFS program, call Lori Dornbusch, Manager of School Food Service at 561-383-2035..