Student Lunch Debt Rising

School Cafeterias Seeking Means to Cover Student Lunch Debt
Posted on 10/30/2019
This is the image for the news article titled School Cafeterias Seeking Means to Cover Student Lunch DebtWhen New York-based writer Ashley C. Ford encouraged her Twitter followers to do a “cool thing” and help out local school kids with overdue lunch accounts three years ago, strangers donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off school lunch debts accrued by students.

School Nutrition Director Trista Snider hopes Weakley County will be just as “cool.”

The Today Show covered the story a couple of months after Ford’s tweet went viral and reported examples such as in Minneapolis where more than 1,700 donors contributed to fundraising efforts that resulted in $139,000 of donations. Those funds included a $200 contribution from a pair of children who emptied out their “giving jar” and a $5,000 gift from the Timberwolves, the city's professional basketball team. Local media outlets elsewhere, from Washington to Kansas to Delaware, told of donations pouring in to wipe out thousands of dollars in school lunch debt.

Weakley County cafeterias have recorded $2,575 in unpaid student charges. (From a 2016 survey, the School Nutrition Association noted that the median amount of debt per district was $2,000.) This week, Snider spoke with school principals regarding options for collecting the needed funds. As a first step, letters will be mailed notifying parents of the deficits in their child’s account. Currently, the total number of students with charges of over $6 – approximately 2 lunches -- is 116.

“We hope they at least make payment plans or that a generous donor graces their child's lunch account. Otherwise General Purpose Funds has to pay for it at the end of the year,” said Snider.

General funds cover essentials such as utilities, maintenance, transportation, technology and textbooks.

“We have tried various means of covering the debt including serving alternate meals such as a ham and cheese sandwich in place of the entrée options listed on the menu. However, we felt that was penalizing the student for the parents’ lack of attention or inability to pay, and we know it isn't the children's fault. I commend and appreciate Mr. Frazier for making the decision to discontinue alternate meals and for searching for more proactive ways to cover costs. We are very willing to work with families on devising a payment plan. We just ask that they respond to our phone calls, letters, and notes that are sent regularly so we can discuss options,” said Snider, commenting on School Director Randy Frazier’s initiative.

Parents can monitor their child’s meal account at www.schoolcafe.com. They can also complete a Free and Reduced Meal Application at any time during the school year to see if they qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Applications are available online (at www.schoolcafe.com) or in a paper format from the school cafeteria manager.

A 2018 survey from the School Nutrition Association, representing 58,000 school nutrition officials, found that more than 75 percent of school districts reported lunch debt in the previous school year, and 40 percent say their debt is growing.

Two Cornell University Division of Nutritional Sciences contributors to the Healthy Food Choices in Food blog noted that USDA and National School Lunch Program (NSLP) lunches are carefully designed to meet the specific nutritional needs of students. Tisa Hill and Julianna Apuzzo write, “By limiting salt, fat, and sugar content while increasing the amount of vitamins and minerals such as iron, school meals are becoming more nutritious. In addition to helping your child become healthier, these nutritious meals have also been shown to improve students’ social behaviors and academic performance.”

The authors explain that academic benefits include improved cognitive function, higher test scores, and better attention spans. Behavioral benefits identified are better classroom behavior, fewer absences and improved mood.

Anyone interested in helping to cover the lunch debts may make checks payable to a specific School Cafeteria or to Weakley County Schools Nutrition.