Actions by school districts seeking to reduce unpaid lunch bills have garnered headlines in recent weeks, adding to a national debate that has flared around “lunch-shaming.”
Pennsylvania, however, has been grappling with the issue for years — and still hasn’t solved it, school officials say.
Districts in the Philadelphia area say student lunch debts have been climbing, and that efforts by the state to avoid shaming students have made it harder for schools to collect on payments.
In response to district complaints about mounting bills, Pennsylvania in June allowed schools to give “alternative meals” to students who owe more than $50 and aren’t eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines based on poverty levels.
The law didn’t define how much districts should spend or what they should serve, but some officials said that when such meals were allowed in years past, districts gave out cheese sandwiches. In Cherry Hill, school leaders said they opted for their controversial tuna-fish sandwich because it was less appealing than peanut butter.
It’s unclear how many school districts are considering offering alternative meals — or how many can do so. The Pennsylvania Department of Education told districts last month the new law doesn’t apply to schools that have any students in the federal meal program.
Still, some school leaders said they didn’t see offering alternatives as the best way to curb lunch debt.
“That goes back to the food-shaming," said Rose Minniti, superintendent in the Bristol Borough School District, one of the region’s poorest economically. “It’s a catch-22.”
Minniti, who became superintendent of the Bucks County school district in August, said adopting an alternative meal policy was “not something I wanted to come out of the gate with.”
Yet, Bristol Borough is facing unpaid lunch bills that reached $11,000 in the last school year — a “huge amount,” given the district’s 1,300 students, Minniti said. As a result, she said the district may have to consider changes to its meal policies.
“When you’re working with kids, you care about them. You want them to have the best experience possible,” Minniti said. “On the other hand, you have $11,000 that has to be paid" — and can’t come out of a district’s federal funds, Minniti said.
Nationally, 75% of school districts that responded to a 2019 survey by the School Nutrition Association reported unpaid lunch debt.
In Pennsylvania, though, neither the state education department nor state associations track lunch debt in school districts. On the scale of school funding woes, it ranks relatively low, district leaders say.
But such school leaders as Minniti said balances have been rising — a trend they attribute to a number of factors, including past efforts to combat lunch shaming.
In 2017, Pennsylvania lawmakers banned districts from denying lunch to any student who couldn’t pay. They also prohibited districts from talking with students about how much money they owe; the state has since changed the law to let schools communicate with high schoolers, but not K-8 students.
School officials say the notification rules have been challenging. “If we don’t tell the student, the message never gets home,” said Gerry Giarratana, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association of Pennsylvania and food service director for the Palisades School District in Bucks County. Parents may ignore letters or emails, he said.
“Every time I have a social worker call parents about lunch money, that’s time that they’re not doing something else," said David Baugh, superintendent of the Centennial School District in Bucks, where lunch debt has grown from $2,867 in 2016-17, to $4,711 in 2018-19.
In the same period, the number of Centennial students with more than $50 in lunch debt jumped from two to 15, Baugh said.
The district has started a “lunch fairy” program for donations to help pay off bills — inspired by a pair of Florida students who started a nonprofit and donated $1,000 to the district a few years ago, Baugh said.
Also using donations is the Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, which — besides asking parents to pay their children’s bills — gives families a choice of donating leftover lunch funds to cover other students’ balances, according to spokesperson Amy Buckman.
Lower Merion has seen an increase in negative balances in recent years, Buckman said, though she did not specify the amount.
In addition to state changes to the collection process, school leaders said rising poverty was likely contributing to some unpaid bills.
“I think there’s a greater need for free and reduced [lunches]. I think some parents think there’s a stigma attached to free and reduced lunch meals,” said Beth Yaksich, food service director at Perkiomen Valley School District. The Montgomery County district has 264 students with $5,172 in unpaid lunch bills carried over from last year, an amount Yaksich said has been “trending up.”
Federal rules allow districts where at least 40% of students are eligible for food stamps — such as Philadelphia — to provide free meals to every student, without requiring families to fill out paperwork.
For districts such as Perkiomen Valley — where Yaksich said about 17% of students receive free and reduced-price lunches — determining which students can’t afford to pay, compared with those whose families might be capable of paying but aren’t, can be hard to sort out.
“There are some families that there’s definite need. There are some families, when they see a donor’s paid off somebody’s account," they think, "‘why should I pay for my account?’” Yaksich said.
After initially refusing, the Wyoming Valley West school board in July agreed to accept a donation by La Colombe CEO and cofounder Todd Carmichael to wipe out $22,000 in student lunch debt. The Luzerne County district drew national attention for sending out letters to hundreds of parents, warning that their children could be placed in foster care if they didn’t pay their lunch bills.