WMBF Investigates: What happens when school lunches go unpaid

WMBF Investigates: What happens when school lunches go unpaid

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – School districts across the country accumulate thousands of dollars in debt when school lunches go unpaid.

Districts’ food service departments are often responsible for generating their own revenue, but a responsibility to feeding students prevents many from completely refusing to feed a child who doesn’t have money.

At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the Horry County School District had $43,442 in overdue lunch money. The total was around a $6,000 increase from the previous year.

With an average lunch costing around $2, the district has roughly 21,700 unpaid meals.

The district isn’t alone. In 2018, the National Nutrition Association found nationwide 75 percent of districts are operating with unpaid fees. The association further found 40 percent of districts saw an increase in the debt for the 2016-2017 school year.

Horry County’s Food Service Department’s $23 million budget is independent from the district’s budget, but the uncollected fees still have an impact.

The department uses its budget to fund the salaries for 300 cafeteria staff members, food cost, equipment repairs and other technology costs.

Kimberly Johnson, the district’s food service director, said the department relies heavily on federal funding from the National School Lunch Program. The program reimburses schools for providing free and reduced lunches to students. Schools also generate revenue by sales of meals and snacks.

Johnson said much of the district’s debt is from students who don’t qualify for free lunches, but that is not always the case. She explained when parents delay reapplying for the free and reduced program their student can accrue charges.

“We give the parents 30 days into the new school year to have time to fill out a new application. Sometimes the parents, even with the 30 days, fail to fill out the application and a free student will then revert to a paying student status and sometimes we incur charges at that particular moment,” she said.

The U.S. Agriculture Department requires schools to have and communicate a policy for collecting unpaid meals fees. The department does not create a standard on how schools can collect those fees, it only requires schools to have a policy in place.

Horry County’s policy allows students to charge $20 of regular meals before they receive a partial meal known as a ‘courtesy meal.’

“We don’t want to see the child go hungry and unfortunately they have no responsibility as far as paying the debt; it’s the parent’s responsibility,” Johnson said. “So, we try to communicate the debt before it gets to the $20 limit by communication with the students or letters to the parents or phone calls to the parents.”

Debt follows the students each year until they reach graduation. The unpaid lunches are then added to the fees students are required to pay before they can walk at graduation.

This, however, is the only real consequence to not paying the fees. Johnson said while most students do pay, sometimes the charges never get paid and become negative debt.

While the debt has increased in the last school year, Johnson explained the debt used to be close to $60,000. She attributed the decrease to 17 schools within the district joining the federally funded program known as the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).

The program allows schools to offer meals to all students for free.

Schools qualify if they meet a certain percent of the student population that qualifies for SNAP, are foster children or homeless.

All schools in the Marion County School District and Florence District 3 qualify for the program, which mean neither district reported having any debt from unpaid lunches.

Florence District 2 reported ending the 2016-2017 school year with around $20,000 in outstanding meal balances.

Johnson said she doesn’t anticipate any more Horry County schools becoming eligible for CEP, which means debt will continue to be a reality for the district.

“It’s not realistic to think that we would ever not have any debt unless we became a completely CEP district, which we have pockets of poverty and pockets of not,” Johnson said. “We just plan with it. We realize that we’re going to have that based on history. There’s always going to be some lingering debt there with meal charges.”

A closer look at the data

If Horry County’s uncollected fees were split between its 44,000 students, each student would have around a dollar in debt.

Schools with highest debt per student (Total debt/student population):

Schools with the least amount of debt:

Schools with the most debt added in the 2017/2018 school year:

All school lunch debt for Horry County Schools:

School Lunch Debt by on Scribd

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