Problem of unpaid school lunches continues to grow

Investigators

Lunches for schoolchildren are as important as education, but providing those lunches can sometimes be financially challenging for school districts when lunch accounts go unpaid.

Unpaid school lunches are a big problem that continues to grow. The School Nutrition Association said 75 percent of school districts nationwide had some unpaid meal debt at the end of the year.

Locally, CBS 17’s investigators found that Durham Public Schools has $209,000 in unpaid balances, and Chapel Hill/Carrboro schools are owed $19,000.

Numbers from Cumberland and Johnston counties were unavailable.

Some parents prepare lunches for the children to avoid the cost of school lunches.

“We pack our lunches at home,” said parent Leah Groff. “I can do it fairly cheaply, and then I know what he’s eating.”

Wake County said its schools have no unpaid lunch balances.

“If a student doesn’t have lunch money, they receive lunch of fruits and veggies, at no charge. If they miss two or more days, the school counselor will call mom and dad to see if the family needs financial assistance or a reminder,” said spokesperson Lisa Luten.

The School Nutrition Association warns against “lunch shaming” if a student has an unpaid account. Some parents wonder if the alternative meals set the students apart, stigmatizing them.

“It would be a very tricky thing, making sure they have something to eat or if they would feel bad getting that meal knowing other kids would know they can’t afford that meal,” said parent Sarah Harris.

There are ways to provide funds for school meals. Non-profits like the School Lunch Fairy and even GoFundMe campaigns have popped up around the country.

Parent Jenn Stikeleather said she would contribute to something like that.

“One of the things our school does is to donate to Backpack Buddies to give lunches to kids on the weekends,” she said. “I think it’s important to help kids out that need that.”

The Food Research and Action center has a policy guide aimed at ensuring access to lunches and preventing the embarrassment and stigma attached to students who get those lunches.

It said schools should “weigh the cost of collecting school meal debt with what a household owes.”

The Department of Agriculture has issued a handbook on the challenges related to unpaid school meals, and has issued regulations requiring schools to develop unpaid meal policies.

It also wants school districts to push efforts to collect the money that’s owed.

Those USDA regulations allow schools to come up with their own solutions, which could include text messages, phone calls or emails.

Some school districts around the country want to use debt collectors to retrieve money from parents with unpaid school lunch accounts, but that is not happening in and around the Triangle right now.

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