Some lunches are free, but insufficient payment for others has left one Mid-Missouri school district to figure out how to foot the bill, while other local districts have been told by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure their unpaid meal policies are clear.
The USDA administers the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program through its Food and Nutrition Service office. Those programs provide meals to economically disadvantaged students for free or a reduced price.
July 1 was the deadline set by the USDA for school districts participating in one or more of the programs to have a written policy on unpaid meal charges. Unpaid meal costs refer to meals received by students at full or reduced price they did not pay for at the time they were served, and have not paid for since.
For the sake of clear, shared expectations among students, staff and families, the USDA required the policy be communicated to all families with children in a district and all school or district-level staff members responsible for enforcing their local policy.
The USDA left individual states and school districts the authority to set policy specifics.
A 2011-12 school year study conducted by the Food and Nutrition Service office found that 58 percent of surveyed school districts incurred unpaid meal costs in the previous school year.
As one example of the kind of unpaid meal debt a school district can accumulate, the Southern Boone school district has made news this year for its outstanding balance of about $30,000.
"It's an ongoing issue," Southern Boone school board President Barrett Glascock told the News Tribune of a balance that has gone up and down over time.
He said the debt primarily stems from about 100 students from 60-80 families — some families with debts in the $3,000-$5,000 range. He explained that some families got into debt early when their children were in the lower grade levels, and their debt has only grown over time.
The district originally considered including unpaid lunch fees in the same category as unpaid library fees and other such charges, which would have meant students with outstanding balances at the end of a school year could have faced consequences like having their report cards withheld or not being able to graduate.
However, Glascock said community members opposed that idea, and since then the board has been trying to find ways to hold parents accountable for meal debt. He said the district is even prepared to go to small claims court to collect on higher unpaid balances.
Southern Boone's stated policy is parents are notified weekly by email when their students' outstanding charges have reached $3.50. The district's elementary school handbook for the coming year also reads that notices will be sent home with students when an account balance falls below $3.75. Students who reach an outstanding unpaid balance of $11 or more may be given an alternative meal instead of the regular school lunch.
Other school districts' unpaid meal policies
Jefferson City High School's student handbook from last year said students are not allowed to charge meals at all. "The staff makes every effort to let students know their current lunch balances beginning at $10," the handbook states. Guardians can also receive an email when their students' balance reaches a predesignated "alert amount."
Blair Oaks Elementary School's handbook from last year said if a student's meal account is in the red, a letter will be sent home to parents. If an account is more than $10 in debt, then that student will receive a peanut butter sandwich instead of the regular lunch until the student's account is up to date.
Blair Oaks Superintendent Jim Jones confirmed the $10 is the limit district-wide, and reiterated "nobody goes without lunch."
Jones said unpaid balances have not been a major problem in the Blair Oaks district, given that parents can see their child's balance online, and the district is proactive about reaching out when a student gets a negative balance to find out why and see what can be done about it.
That might mean having a family fill out an application to participate in a free or reduced meal program, or it might not. "Just because you haven't paid your lunch balance doesn't mean you qualify for free and reduced (meals)," he said.
"We work with parents to resolve outstanding balances before we get to graduation," he added, and withholding report cards for unpaid balances is not an option because parents have password-protected access to those.
Russellville High School's handbook from last year states lunch balances are included in the category of student debt with library fines, class dues and other fines — and "failure to pay the debt could result in loss of student parking privileges and/or student activities."
The handbook also set the maximum amount students can charge for meals at $7.50, and a warning is sent when $3.75 is left in an account.
Furthermore, the Russellville school district's board policy section on meal charges, implemented in June 2014, stipulates that a student may not accumulate more than five unpaid charges for complete meals. Substitute meals that meet the district's nutritional guidelines will be served to students still unable to pay after that, though these will also be charged to the student's meal account.
Students with money in hand will not be denied a regular meal, even if they have an outstanding balance.
After three unpaid meal charges, the policy notes the district will "encourage the parents/guardians to submit an application for free and reduced-price meals" if one has not been recently submitted.
"The district will turn over unpaid meal charge balances to a collection agency when the superintendent or designee determines such action is in the best interest of the district," the Russellville policy reads.
The Eugene school district's policy was just approved June 26. Like at Blair Oaks, students will be allowed to charge $10 at most, and after that students may be given an alternate meal.
Parents and guardians will receive notification of their students' negative balances and will be encouraged to apply for participation in a free or reduced-price meal program if financial hardship is expected.
The district set May 15 as a cutoff for all charging. All charges not paid in full carry over into the next school year, and seniors may not be able to participate in graduation ceremonies if they do not pay their charges in full.
California Middle School's handbook for the coming school year informs students that their report cards will be held in the school office if they have any unpaid charges or fines for a quarter, although it's not immediately clear if lunch charges are included in this.
The middle school handbook does state that if a student's account goes $5 in the red, "they will not be allowed to eat regular lunch until they replenish the account. These students will be served a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no milk for no charge."
California High School's handbook last year said students were able to charge for only one meal, and that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk were available for those who couldn't pay.
The Fulton school district's unpaid meal charge policy was issued in May. Students may not accrue more than 10 unpaid charges. Students with money in hand won't be denied a regular meal despite an outstanding balance, and students unable to pay after 10 unpaid charges will receive an alternate meal.
The policy also notes, "If a student has been provided a regular meal, that meal will not be taken away from the student even if the student should have been provided an alternative meal due to unpaid meal charges."
After five unpaid charges, the district will encourage parents or guardians to submit an application for free or reduced-price meals if one hasn't been submitted recently. Weekly notification will be given to parents if an account balance is below $10 and if a balance is negative.
After 90 days, the policy said debt becomes delinquent, and "the district will make reasonable efforts to collect delinquent debt, including turning over unpaid meal charge balances to a collection agency when the superintendent or designee determines such action is in the best interest of the district."
If delinquent debt becomes too costly or impossible to collect, it becomes bad debt, and this has to written off in a school districts operating costs; it can't be restored using federal funds, but must be paid back to the federal government.
Meanwhile, the only easily found specific consequence for Fulton students is they are not able to withdraw or transfer from the district unless all fees for lunches, lost or damaged books and other reasons are paid, according to Fulton Middle School's handbook for the coming year.
The USDA values student privacy in all proceedings. Guidance it issued in May told school districts they "should remind food service professionals not to notify children of their meal charge debt in front of other students."
School districts are prohibited from enlisting volunteers to request payment from families and from publicizing the names of children with unpaid meal charges. The latter is only "discouraged" if the children are not eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Fulton and Russellville's board policies state "students will not be identified, singled out, shamed or punished by the district for the failure of their parents/guardians to pay for or provide meals, and the district will not withhold student records in violation of law."
Jones said things are different now than when he was a student. Back then, students who owed money had their names read over the school intercom system or posted at school.
Times have changed to protect students' privacy, as school districts "balance the financial solvency of (their) food service operation with the importance of ensuring all children continue to have access to the healthy meals they need to grow, learn, and thrive," in the words of the USDA.
Glascock said the Southern Boone district hopes to have a solution to its unpaid meal balance worked out in August.