Schools must balance lunch debt response with student needs

EVERETT — Schools across Snohomish County let students without money eat now and pay later, yet the debt varies greatly from district to district.

More lenient policies have led to mounting IOUs in Mukilteo, Monroe and Snohomish, whose combined debt for unpaid meals exceeds $225,000. Most of that total belongs to families whose incomes are high enough that their children don’t qualify for free or government-discounted meals.

The debt in Mukilteo is $85,000.

The district is torn between the desire to make sure students are provided a balanced meal each day and the need to be fiscally responsible.

“If we err to the former, the food debt will grow and some parents will be tempted to take advantage of us,” district spokesman Andy Muntz said. “If we err to the latter, some children will go hungry and we run the risk of being on the local news for taking meals away from children and throwing their food away. In our case we have opted for the former.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants all districts to have a meal charging policy in place by July and to make sure it is clearly communicated to parents. Mukilteo, a district with more than 15,000 students, is reviewing its policy now.

“We are going to try to find a way that works better than the current system does,” Muntz said.

Three quarters of school districts nationwide had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the last school year, according to the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit that represents school nutrition professionals around the country. It can be a delicate issue: No one wants to see a child miss a meal or feel singled out for a parent’s mistake, but school districts can’t be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills.

Washington is a state that promotes local decisions when it comes to meal charges, said Donna Parsons, director of child nutrition services for the state Superintendent of Public Instruction. As a result, policies for unpaid meal debt vary from district to district.

“Partly why it needs to be local control is the folks out in the schools really know who the children are who are in need and what the community will support and not support,” Parsons said.

Monroe, a district of roughly 7,000 students, put in place a policy last spring to ensure that no student goes hungry at school regardless of the ability to pay. Its unpaid meal tab also is around $85,000. Of that total, more than $69,000 is owed by families who, at least on paper, are able to pay full price for meals, according to district records. That’s roughly 11 percent of school district families.

Like Mukilteo, the Monroe district is looking at revising its policy to ensure families are not accruing so much debt while making sure no child goes hungry during school, said Erin Zacharda, a school district spokeswoman. A group of parents has been enlisted to provide input.

Monroe is typical of other districts: negative lunch balances carry over with students from year to year and the tab must be paid by the end of a student’s senior year in order to get a diploma or transcript. The Monroe Public Schools Foundation has helped seniors unable to pay.

Monroe sends out weekly email reminders about negative balances and quarterly letters through the U.S. mail. It’s now piloting a text messaging system that will allow it to notify families if their child owes anything.

The unpaid meal tab in Snohomish is around $55,000.

“No matter what the account balance, we always feed students,” said Kristin Foley, a spokeswoman for the district, which has more than 10,000 students.

Other districts have managed to keep their bills down, but there’s typically a running tab.

Last month, Tom and Christy Lee paid off the entire $5,495 bill for 262 students from 10 schools in the Marysville School District. As word spread, the gesture had ripple effects.

The Lake Stevens School District received a $500 anonymous donation. That erased a $443 meal debt for 185 students and left it with a $57 cushion toward future debts.

In Lake Stevens, students are allowed to charge two meals before they are offered a “courtesy meal,” which includes a salad bar and drink for elementary school students and a sandwich, drink and salad bar for older students.

“We don’t want students to have a large debt that could further burden their family,” district spokeswoman Jayme Taylor said.

Edmonds recently posted a notice on its website, saying anyone who wanted to pay off student food debt could give directly to the district’s food and nutrition services department. Days later, the debt was gone, thanks to 36 donations.

“We will be notifying the families of the 755 students who had meal debt that their balances owed are now zero,” wrote Barb Lloyd, director of food services, in a May 26 letter to her staff. “Of those, 60 are graduating seniors.”

The situation is a far cry from nine years ago when the Edmonds district entered the 2008 school year with more than $200,000 in unpaid meal debt. At the time, 2,750 students owed more than $10 each from the previous year. The trend led the district to tighten its policies. More families also applied for a government-subsidized lunch.

A gofundme account was established in the Everett School District. Eighty-eight people contributed $4,175 during a 19-day stretch. The district’s meal debt typically has averages around $5,500. Another way to support students is to put money on the school house account.

“Most of the kids that need the support don’t qualify for free meals, but their families are still struggling financially,” said Leanna Albrecht, an Everett schools spokeswoman. “Ongoing donations to the house account can help prevent kids from ever going in the negative.”

The Stanwood-Camano School District was carrying an $874 debt as of last week. Nearly 94 percent was from families whose children don’t qualify for a government-subsidized lunch.

The district typically sends out an automated message each week to parents who owe $1.50 or more. Those families are also offered applications to see if they qualify for a free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.

Elementary school students are allowed to charge two breakfasts and two lunches.

Once the lunch account has reached that threshold, they are offered a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk. Older students aren’t allowed to charge. If they have no meal from home, they are offered the cheese sandwich and milk.

Other districts near and far use the cheese sandwich option.

The debt is around $4,200 in Darrington, $2,500 in Sultan and $1,800 in Arlington.

In Lakewood, the bill was just $218 the other day. Parents in the past have offered to pay other students’ accounts. So has the PTA. The schools superintendent and food services staff also have donated money.

In Index, a district of 35 students, there is no debt.

The issue of unpaid meals is being discussed across the country.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture received 462 responses to a survey of schools nationwide about the issue of unpaid lunch bills. Policies at school districts across the country ranged from not allowing meals to be charged at all to allowing unlimited charges. Most had a limited number of charges allowed.

A summary of the report was submitted to Congress in June 2016.

Many commenters expressed concern about a lack of parental initiative to pay.

“They indicated that in spite of numerous reminders about low or negative balances, along with encouragement to consider applying for free or reduced price meal benefits, parents often did not replenish their children’s account” or contact school officials for an application to seek assistance.

In some parts of the country, meals have been taken away from students when they couldn’t pay.

Congress is considering that very issue.

The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act proposes banning schools from singling out children — such as by requiring them to wear wristbands or hand stamps or do extra chores — because their parents have not paid their school meal bills.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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