“Have a great day, enjoy your lunch,” food service director Steve Marinelli says to Milton Town School District (MTSD) students as they stop by his register. Gone are the days of exchanging cash or tickets for meals; most families now opt to pay for their students’ victuals online or by check.
But some students, don’t pay at all. MTSD has currently accrued about $20,000 in unpaid student-meal debt.
Close to 40 percent of the district’s 1,800 students are on a free or reduced meal plan. The number exceeds 50 percent when students who do not pay for their food are added into the figure, according to Marinelli.
“There’s really limited recourse that you can [take] to collect this money,” he said, adding when a family discovers there are no true repercussions for delinquent bills, MTSD is often left paying for the student’s meals through high school.
But it’s a “national crisis,” Marinelli said. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has identified this national food service struggle and subsequently created best practices to guide schools.
“Local officials must balance their desire to provide for hungry children lacking the means to pay for meals with the demands of maintaining the financial viability,” the FNS guide says. “FNS does, however, recognize the importance of instituting an official policy and clearly communicating the policy to all stakeholders.”
MTSD is currently working with its trustees to approve a policy with procedures for unpaid meals. This document would detail the district’s existing practices which include: mailing out free and reduced lunch applications at the start of each academic year, identifying and helping families in need throughout the year and alerting families of their meal debt.
Current practice errs on discretion. “There’s a lot of students that get free and reduced meals and don’t even know that there’s no charge to it,” Marinelli said. “The days of shaming and the days of denying students [meals], I think, is something of the past.”
Instead of alerting students of their debt, Marinelli and the food service staff mail letters to their family and offer help filling out forms for free and reduced meals.
But some people miss the cut off by mere hundreds of dollars, Marinelli said, adding he sees many young families struggling with rent, mortgages and car payments which prohibit them from affording school fare.
Serving nutritious foodstuffs and supporting local producers has increased the cost of school meals in recent years. “It costs more to have good food,” Marinelli said. “[But] that’s what we’re here for, is to provide the most nutritious food, support our local growers and farmers and feed kids.”
MTSD hopes to obtain federally funded “Provision II” meals, which supply all students with a free breakfast, according to Marinelli.
The universal meal would benefit MTSD twofold: First, it would eliminate unpaid meal debt from the breakfast program and second, it could help parents fuel their children through the day saving them enough expense to provide some lunchtime fare from home, he explained. The food could even help with academic, social and emotional welfare.
“There’s been plenty of studies done that [show] when kids go to school and they’re provided nutritious food they do better in school; there’s less nurse visits; there’s less behavioral issues and it levels the playing field for all students,” Marinelli said.
As for the finances, delinquent meal costs fall under the category of “unallowable debt,” according to the FNS guide. This means the money can not be recuperated through federal funds. FNS suggests districts instead cover the loss using general fund monies, non-federal funding or special state/local government funding.
“It’s just part of the cost of doing business,” Marinelli said. “We can only hope that eventually we’ll have universal meals for all students.”
“That’s the end all,” he continued. “Just feed kids.”