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School Lunch Debt Takes a Bite out of Supplies, Learning Materials

By Melissa Biediger | July 16, 2018 | Corporate Citizenship

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“When that hungry child walks up to you with a tray of food and no money, what are you going to do?”

That’s how Erselle Young explains managing the lunch debt in her school system. “That child has already been through hours of classes and they have to get through the rest of the day. How can we not provide a meal for them?”

Fuel for Learning

Young is director of school nutrition for Rockingham County Schools. She works with the schools in her district to provide healthy food to all students while keeping cafeterias from overspending their budgets.

But recently, school districts in North Carolina and across the country have been facing thousands of dollars in debt from school lunch programs. While the schools are trying to manage what they spend on food, labor, and supplies, many cafeterias end up providing meals for students who don’t pay. Often these students are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, but their parents haven’t applied for the benefit. In other cases, parents forget to send lunch money or add funds to their child’s school lunch account.

When a child doesn’t have lunch money, some schools swap a hot meal for a cheese sandwich or only provide fruits and vegetables. Other cafeterias won’t serve the child at all to avoid the unpaid meal. Doing so leaves a child without a nutritious lunch, sending them back to a classroom on an empty stomach – without fuel to learn. But for schools like Young’s that have a commitment to serving children healthy, warm meals, the unpaid lunches can add up. 

“When a child fills their tray and gets to the end of the check-out line with no money, we have an agreement to let that child eat regardless,” said Young. “We work with parents and school administration to avoid denying a student their lunch. We give them a healthy, warm meal for free, and we try to work with the parents to get payment. But that’s how you end up with $15,000 in debt.”

When kids don’t get their lunches at school, they have trouble focusing in class and their performance suffers. According to No Kid Hungry, when students don’t get enough to eat, 80% of teachers see them lose the ability to concentrate, and 62% see behavioral and discipline problems. School meals have a powerful effect on kids’ health, behavior and academic performance – a hungry kid just can’t learn.

A Sigh of Relief

In most cases, a school’s meal budget is separate from other budgets used for salaries and supplies. At Young’s schools, when the lunch debt needs to be paid, that money comes from the school’s general fund. Money that would otherwise go toward things like educational games and science equipment ends up being used to cover the debt.

“Schools really depend on these general funds to purchase educational items that enrich classrooms, but if we use that money to pay for lunches, our teachers have to rely on community donations or fundraisers,” Young said.

To help address the school lunch debt in North Carolina, Blue Cross NC announced in May a commitment to pay the debt in five Piedmont counties. Nearly $160,000 will go to Alamance, Guilford, Forsyth, Davidson, and Rockingham counties to eliminate lunch debts and help schools provide for kids who lack access to affordable healthy food.

“When we got the call about Blue Cross NC’s donation, we all breathed a sigh of relief – it was wonderful,” Young said.  “We can try to get parents to apply for federal and reduced lunch, and we can call them about the debt they owe. But at the end of the day, it’s about the children and making sure they can get the food they need to do their best in school.”