Can’t pay for school lunch? There’s no shame

New policy outlines how schools will deal with negative account balances

Most students who pass through the cafeteria don’t worry about having enough money to pay for lunch. But students who have a negative lunch account balance may worry if there will be a lunch waiting for them.

The Stillwater Area School Board approved a policy June 15 that would ensure that no matter the number on the account balance, the student would receive a meal without shame.

The new policy describes what happens when a meal account balance is negative, and how the district will notify parents of the debt if it grows.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is requiring school districts to have a policy in place informing the public the responsibilities, options, procedures and notifications used in the public school nutrition programs. The USDA oversees the federal school lunch program, which includes federal reimbursement for students that receive free or reduced cost meals. The policy outlines and defines how the district’s food service collects payments for a student food service account, how parents are notified of a low or negative account balance, and how students can continue to participate in school food service if a negative account balance occurs.

According to the policy, students will be allowed to participate in the school lunch program regardless of meal account balance and all communication regarding account balances will be with parents and not with students.

If the balance drops below negative $50, the district will prohibit participation in future fee-based activities — such as field trips or sports — until the negative balance is paid in full. However, while in the meal line, no student will be shamed or treated differently if their account balance is negative.

Director of finance and operations Kristen Hoheisel told the board that the district’s meal program is currently owed $37,000 in delinquent account balances.

This isn’t the first time the school district has discussed its policies on how to handle account balances that dip into the negative. In 2014, results of a survey by Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid found that 15 percent of school districts in the state reported a practice of “immediate or eventual refusal to serve hot lunch or an alternative meal to a child who cannot pay.”

The news led Gov. Mark Dayton to propose legislation that would provide $3.5 million to ensure no student would be denied a hot meal at lunchtime, regardless of their ability to pay. Stillwater was one of the school districts identified that would eventually refuse to serve lunch to students who couldn’t pay. At the time, there was no specific board policy to direct staff and families on how a negative lunch account would be handled. Instead, guidelines were shared with food service staff and meal refusal was a rarely taken step.

The new policy will better inform staff and families how negative account balances will be handled, Hoheisel said.

“We do have some accounts that have been out there for quite some time,” Hoheisel said. “[We] hope that parents that are in a situation or are in need will work will us and fill out forms. All that money in those closed accounts we will wipe out if you qualify for free or reduced lunch.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the policy.

“I support this,” board member Tom Lehmann said. “My only concern is, and we can address this in the future, I think that if you carry a negative balance you should not be allowed to purchase a la carte items. They have nothing to do with the actual meal itself.”

“I would like to see a report after a year to see how this goes,” board member George Hoeppner said

Meal price increases

The cost of a school lunch will increase next year, in accordance to USDA requirements. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program are required to have a pay equity rate, meaning the full price of a school lunch needs to be proportional to the reimbursement the federal program gives to district for free or reduced-price meals.

Meal prices for elementary school lunches will increase by 10 cents — from $2.50 to $2.60. At secondary schools, both breakfast and lunch prices will increase by 10 cents. For breakfast, the new cost is $1.50 and for lunch the new cost is $2.90.

The board voted unanimously to approve the meal price increase. Stillwater Area Schools falls within the median price of meals when compared to neighboring school districts.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]