HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Horry County students owe the district $57,808 for school lunches, according to data obtained from the district for the 2018-19 school year.
The district allows students to purchase lunch even when they don’t have money on their account. Students can charge up to $20 in meals before they are issued what is called a ‘courtesy meal.'
“Those lunch debts just didn’t occur yesterday,” said Lisa Bourcier, spokesperson for Horry County Schools. “They accumulate year after year and stays with that student until they graduate. So until they pay for those, those will continue to grow.”
Data reveals the debt increased by $14,000 last year. This growth is more than double the amount from the previous year, when around $6,000 in debt was added. While the district added 125 new students last year, it also had less days to serve lunch. The average debt per student increased by 32 cents.
In January, Kimberly Johnson, the district’s food service director, said the district’s debt used to be close to $60,000, but credited the decrease in the debt in recent years to schools being added to the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Seventeen schools in the district qualified for the program that awards free meals to all students.
Now the amount of unpaid lunches appears to be on the rise again, with a $20,000 increase over the last two years.
“The number of debt that we have does not alarm us. It’s about an average that we anticipate having for people not paying off their school lunch debt,” Bourcier said.
She added other districts of similar size have around $270,000 in debt from unpaid lunches.
The deficit doesn’t impact daily operations of the district or classrooms because the Food Service Department operates on a separate budget.
“It is a self-contained budget. It is not paid for by tax dollars, and again, we budget that budget based on collections not based on what is being billed,” Bourcier explained.
The department is funded by meal sales and federal dollars from the National School Lunch Program. Its $23 million budget funds the salaries for 300 cafeteria staff members, food cost, equipment repairs and other technology costs.
District officials said they work to communicate with parents about what they owe and make it easy for fees to be paid.
“We make it as easy as possible. Again, different options for them to pay that, and again, I think education, letting them know the options for receiving the reduced lunches as well. A lot of times they don’t know it’s an annual process so they will rack up a debt not knowing they have to make that application year after year," Bourcier said.
Parents who need to apply for free and reduced lunch can fill out an application here.
Currently, there is no real consequence for students who don’t pay off their debt until they are seniors. Unpaid school lunches transfer from school to school with the student until they graduate. Students are unable to walk at graduation if they don’t pay it off.
The district’s nearly $60,000 in unpaid lunches averages out to around $1.30 for each of the district’s 44,185 students.
However, this debt is not distributed equally.
Only six schools reported having no debt. They are Waccamaw Elementary, St, James Intermediate, Riverside Elementary, Horry County Alternative School, the Academy of Arts and the Academy for Technology and Academics.
Twenty-four schools decreased their debt, but over half of the district’s schools added to their deficit.
With more than $9,000 owed, Carolina Forest High School has the biggest debt.
Students at Lakewood Elementary, Waterway Elementary and Conway High School also owe more than $3,000 dollars.