Freshman Anthony Wu seemed like a typical student last year, but he had a guilty secret. He zipped through the lunch line with his “healthy lunch” consisting of four bags of chips. The fact is, he never paid a cent. His debt and bags of chips piled up day after day until he had a grand total of $320 worth of chips.
“ Now I pay, but back then I was lazy and didn’t tell my parents anything,” Wu said. “ I was a bit embarrassed because all I got was chips and I didn’t want them to see that.”
Unfortunately, the hammer came down when he got a letter from the “Debt Return Agency.” He finally had to pay the debt.
CPS has a new procedure with delinquent lunch accounts so others won’t have the same story as Wu. Starting from January 3, any accounts with more than $50 in debt are going to be immediately turned over to a third party collection service. Columbia Public Schools (CPS) Nutritional Services Director Laina Fullum said that there were about 429 cases out of 19,000 students. To put that in perspective, that is as a much as a middle-sized elementary school, or approximately as large as a middle school.
“ We used to have a letter series that we sent to parents,” Fullum said. “But now we are discontinuing the letter series and going straight to truth collections.”
Originally, CPS had three letters to families that they would send regarding the debt. If the parents failed to balance the debt, they would proceed to truth collections, and then if far enough, to lawsuits.
Students will still be able to get a meal even if they are $50 in debt, but no a la carte items are allowed, such as chips or fruit snacks, so that situations such as Wu wouldn’t occur.
According to CPS, there are more than $101,000 in lunch debts that still haven’t been paid. $28,400 of that sum is from students who have left the district. Director Fullum hopes these procedures will make parents more responsible, or come get aid if needed.
“If a parent that calls me and says, “Hey, I need help. I can’t pay these debts,” Fullum said. “I would say to fill out a free-reduced application, and if the parent sadly does not qualify, then I can at least get their balance to zero through donated funds.”
RBHS students think these new procedures are good measures to put into place for accounts with debt. At RBHS, there are 34 students with debt in their account with over $50 owed.
Freshman Will McAllister said that this would be a good opportunity for holding more parents accountable for putting lunch money into their child’s account.
“I think these procedures are good for CPS because it’ll make parents who are fully capable of paying for lunch themselves be responsible to pay their bills and hopefully help parents come forward if they cannot pay,” McAllister said.
“ It is definitely a good incentive to put lunch money in because the last thing you want is to read the collection service letter,” Wu said. “Also, the a la carte rule would have made me tell my parents sooner last year. Not letting me buy chips would have definitely been an incentive to tell my parents.”
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