School Lunch Debt: Districts Taking To Collection Agencies, Meal Swap-Outs To Stave Off Unpaid Bills

Americans are likely hearing from debt collectors more in recent years than in the past, but a practice that may become even more common: debt collecting for unpaid school lunches.

A lot of school-aged kids are getting free lunches -- not because they are backed by the government's free and reduced-lunch program, but because parents haven't been paying off lunch bills, forcing a number of districts to foot the cost.

Already weighed down by budget cuts across education systems, districts can't afford to take on yet another addition to climbing costs. As a result, several across the country have resorted to hiring debt collectors, employing constables and switching out regular meals for lesser versions in a push to get parents to pay up.

As of last February, New York City schools had absorbed some $42 million in unpaid lunch fees since 2004, according to The New York Times. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina recently appropriated $40,000 to cover unpaid lunch fees, the Daily Tar Heel reports.

Columbus City Schools in Ohio in March turned unpaid accounts over to a collection agency in an effort to recover about $900,000 in unpaid lunch fees.

And while 70 percent of district students qualify for free lunches, Columbus City Schools still loses about $2,622 a day on unpaid lunches, The Columbus Dispatch reports.

To help alleviate the problem, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying out different policies and practices as part of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to determine whether national requirements can be created. It is also working to identify more students whose parents do not apply for free or reduced-price meals, but are eligible to do so. A USDA pilot program would match school attendance records and Medicaid recipients in six states, beginning next year, Education Week reports.

In Davidson County, North Carolina, a new policy implemented last June limits student lunch debt to $11.75 before they are only permitted an alternative lunch until the debt is paid. That "alternative" means cheese or peanut butter sandwiches with fruit, vegetables and milk -- a lesser, and less costly, version of a regular meal with meat, and one that the USDA will reimburse. When that debt reaches $37.50, the family is referred to a collection agency.

Since the policy's implementation, district school lunch debt has fallen to $41,000 from $54,000, according to Education Week.

"I cannot tell you whether it is the change in the meal or the threat of a collection agency," Said Lisa Nelson, Davidson's director of child nutrition.

The alternative meals that Davidson County provides is not required by the USDA, but is encouraged.

The school district in Meriden, Conn. saw its student lunch debt dive to $845, from $60,000, after it took a series of proactive measures: the district sent out applications for free and reduced-price meals over the summer, allowing for ample processing time before the school year started, and created guidelines that gave elementary students alternative meals if they carried lunch debt, but barred middle and high school students from receiving any meals if they had outstanding fees.

The measures are beginning to prove successful for districts, but parents are sometimes skeptical of the methods. In West Virginia's Boone County Schools, where debt has accrued to $100,000, parents told WOWK-TV that some students had to collect money for their peers to eat. Robert White said his children were shamed when they were asked to call their parents from the principal's office, reminding them that they were delinquent on lunch payments.

"They singled out the kids that had an outstanding lunch bill and just embarrassed them in front of all their friends and their peers," White said.

The House of Representatives on Thursday passed a budget that replaces about $100 billion in mandatory cuts next year. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the plan would slash food aid for children in 22 million households across the country, and some 300,000 children would be cut from school lunch programs.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly located Boone County in North Carolina. It is in West Virginia.