Unpaid lunch account debt continues to grow across the Columbia Public Schools (CPS) district. This debt has increased to $130,000 as of August 2017, and, barring any dramatic change, will continue to increase.
At the beginning of each school year, CPS sends out a letter to parents informing families of the free and reduced lunch program. The program is aimed to help families who are not capable of paying for school lunches each day.
CPS nutrition services director Laina Fullum says this notice is often neglected, which can have a large impact on a family’s ability to pay lunch bills.
“Many of our families ignore the notice or move and fail to update their address and in return, the application is not filled out in time to avoid charges,” Fullum said. “The program is structured to go into effect once an application is turned in and cannot go retroactive according to federal law. So, once the damage is done, families who cannot pay are still responsible for the charges incurred before they turned in an application. This is an unfortunate reality.”
Eventually, if lunch bills continue to grow for families who do not pay them off, they could possibly receive further retribution.
“Balances that reach over a specific limit go to our collection agency that handles sending out letters to our families,” Fullum said. “If the debt continues to climb, it then goes into true collections and the agency calls families. After that effort, and if the debt continues to climb, it may eventually go to court in the form of a lawsuit.”
While only 14 miles separate the Southern Boone Public School District from CPS, punishments for parents who do not pay off lunch account debts differ from those at CPS.
Southern Boone superintendent Christopher Felmlee, however, hopes the new punishments will decrease the school district’s debt.
“The district, for over five years, has had $30,000.00 of debt annually with lunch bills over $50,” Felmlee said. “This reoccurring debt was a concern with our past audit. As a result, the district has implemented new measures.”
These new punishments restrict parents with unpaid lunch account debts from attending classroom celebrations, middle school graduation and even high school graduation. Southern Boone Public Schools aims to use these limitations to deter students and their families from allowing lunch account debt to accumulate over time.
RBHS junior Luke Harper thinks the punishment Southern Boone enforces is tough on the parents; however, he also understands the reasoning behind it.
“I think it’s a harsh punishment, but if the parents can settle the debt, they should because the school needs to keep a balanced budget,” Harper said. “There are also many other things that can keep you from graduating which are much smaller than lunch debt, so in perspective it is a good way for the school to settle debt.”
While it is the student who is buying lunches from CPS, district policy determines the parent of that student responsible for the unpaid lunch account bills.
“Our district philosophy is that a hungry student cannot learn as effectively as a well-nourished student and it is not the student’s fault for the non-payment, it is the responsibility of the parent(s) to keep the accounts in good standing,” Fullum said. “We do not want to punish minors for the acts of adults.”
CPS parents, however, will not receive further punishment similar to that of Southern Boone’s harsher policy.
At both CPS and Southern Boone, if a student owes lunch account debt, he or she can eat meals that are provided by the district, but that deal restricts food from the specialty items list including chips, cookies and certain drinks.
“Students with an unpaid balance cannot make ‘a la carte’ purchases … They also cannot purchase a second meal,” Felmlee said. “There are no alternative meals for students with an unpaid meal debt. The administration wants every child to eat breakfast and lunch.”
Harper agrees that every student should be entitled to a full meal every day; however, similar to CPS’s and Southern Boone’s policy, he thinks there should be restrictions upon what is available to those students for purchase.
“All students should be able to get a lunch because it may be the only meal they get that day,” Harper said. “Students that don’t have credit in their account should be able to get full meals, but only students with credit in their lunch account should be able to get ‘a la carte’ items because the school [district] needs to keep its budget.”
Whether a family applies for the free and reduced lunch program before or after the start of the school year, they are still fully responsible for the debt that they have acquired.
“We accept free and reduced price lunch applications all year long to provide immediate relief to families who qualify,” Fullum said. “So, yes they can [apply for free and reduced lunch], but we encourage this at the start of each year and inform all families in the district about the meal benefit program.”