In a year already marked by budget deficits, area school districts have a new unexpected expense: tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid student lunch bills.
Officials from Clark County’s largest school districts say a new state law that requires school districts feed students regardless of whether they have money in their lunch accounts has put them in a difficult position. On one hand, nutrition directors agree that all students should have access to a healthy lunch. On the other, local districts now face using general fund money to pay unpaid tabs.
“We’re for feeding kids, but what (the law) didn’t have is where the money was going to come from,” said Peggy Rieper, executive director of the Washington School Nutrition Association. “The schools are all accruing these huge debts, and our nutrition programs are going broke because of it.”
Lawmakers adopted House Bill 2610, the hunger-free students’ bill of rights act , in March 2018. The bill requires that school districts only communicate to parents when their children younger than 15 are in debt on their lunch accounts. It also prohibits schools from identifying students who can’t pay for lunch, such as stamping a student’s hand.
Districts must also give students the day’s meal regardless of owed money. That means they can’t give students an alternate meal like a cheese sandwich rather than the hot lunch being served.
Schools lunch debt
Clark County’s largest school districts closed out the 2018-2019 school year with students owing tens of thousands of dollars in debt on their lunch accounts.
Evergreen Public Schools: $85,000.
Vancouver Public Schools: $51,000.
Battle Ground Public Schools: $56,000.
Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, co-sponsored HB 2610. She said the goal of the bill was to encourage schools to build relationships with parents to identify struggles families might be facing. Do they qualify for free- or reduced-lunch, for example, and just haven’t filled out the paperwork?
“That’s the bigger challenge, and while that conversation is happening, we don’t feel it’s appropriate for kids to have to bear the brunt of answering for their lunch bill,” she said.
School district officials largely agree. Jennifer Misfeldt, nutrition services director for Evergreen Public Schools, said there’s no moment worse for a cashier than telling a child they can’t afford to eat.
“You cannot communicate balance issues with the kids,” she said. “They need to be focused on their education.”
But communicating with parents is easier said than done, according to Misfeldt. The district makes automated phone calls and sends emails to families, sends letters home through the mail, and eventually, school staff will call families directly to try to identify what’s happening. In many cases, however, those attempts are unsuccessful.
Now, Evergreen Public Schools is facing $85,000 in unpaid lunch debt, up from $35,000 the year prior and $6,600 at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. District spokeswoman Gail Spolar said the district adopted a policy allowing students to buy lunch while running a deficit the year before the state law was put in place.
“Nobody knows what to do,” Misfeldt said.
Vancouver Public Schools saw its lunch debt grow from about $1,100 at the end of 2017-2018 to about $51,000 at the end of this school year.
In Battle Ground Public Schools, lunch debt was $56,000 at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. Like Evergreen, the district adopted the policy to let students buy a meal regardless of their debt during the 2017-2018 school year. The district ended that school year with $35,000 in unpaid lunch accounts, up from $7,000 the year prior. Under district policy, families whose students rack up $100 or more in debt will be sent to collections. District spokeswoman Rita Sanders said of the 2,146 former and current students who owe money, 140 owe more than $100.
The high rates of lunch debt come at a time when national attention is turned to the issue of “lunch shaming,” the idea that kids who can’t pay their dues are identified in some way or given a different meal. The Chobani yogurt company made headlines this year when it donated $47,000 to a Rhode Island school district to help ease its lunch debt. Chalkbeat reported that after Denver Public Schools announced it would guarantee a meal to all students, lunch debt ballooned from $13,000 in 2016-2017 to $356,000 in 2017-2018.
A 2018 School Nutrition Association report suggests that 75.3 percent of school districts closed out the 2016-2017 year with unpaid student meal debt.
The Washington chapter of the association is in the midst of collecting data on how schools in this state are affected. Kim Elkins, legislative chair of the Washington School Nutrition Association, said of the 10 school districts she’s surveyed so far, lunch debt was $331,000 at the end of the school year. That’s up from $95,000 the year prior.
“We would love to feed every kid for free so it’s not an issue,” said Elkins, who is also the nutrition services manager at the Mead School District. “Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry or embarrassed to go through the line.”
But, she added, districts are dedicating significant resources to contacting parents, only to see their bills continue to rack up.
The Washington School Nutrition Association advocated for changes to the state bill that ultimately went nowhere during the 2018-2019 session, Elkins said. She hopes that, with data to prove the growth of lunch debt, legislators will consider dedicating funding to the issue.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” she said.