Getting Tough On School Lunch Debt


They say there is no such thing as a free lunch, but that’s not always the case at school.  When students show up without a lunch or money to buy one, most schools will feed them and send the parents a bill.   But what happens when parents don’t pay?  In a district in Brantley County, Georgia, you get a collection agency to go after them.

After students there racked up nearly $25,000 in unpaid lunch bills, officials decided it was time to get tough.  Citing federal requirements that there be no indebtedness to the school nutrition program, they turned the matter over to a collection agency.

But wait!  Don’t collection agencies charge for their services?  Of course they do. And that is probably the reason for the 40% late fee that was tacked on to each parent’s bill.

If you think hiring a collection agency and increasing a parent’s debt isn’t the best way to go, consider the cheese sandwich method.  A neighboring school district with nearly $40,000 in unpaid lunch debt has stopped serving a full lunch to kids who owe money.  Instead, those students get a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk. Not only does that cost less for the school, it motivates the kids to nag their parents until they pay up.  And they do:  Nearly half the unpaid school lunch debt has been cleared since the cheese sandwich program was implemented.

As someone who knows what it’s like to run out of money before you run out out of month, I feel for parents who are struggling to make ends meet.  But unless prior arrangements have been made, parents should send their kids to school with lunch or money to buy one.  And if a kid shows up every now and then with neither, I think a cheese sandwich is more than fair.  It’s certainly a better solution than a 40% penalty that places an unnecessary burden on parents who are already struggling.

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