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Unpaid Meal Policies - Best Practices to Ensure Access to Meals

Published November 2017

Many of you are dealing with unpaid meals debts and it’s a real struggle to determine the best way to handle these growing debts for your schools. You want to feed the kids, but this growing debt is a real concern. It is certainly not the children’s fault if they have an unpaid debt – and yet they are the ones who may go without meals or be faced with the stigma of not having the money to eat. None of you went into administration thinking that being a debt collector was part of the job. From a health standpoint we know that students are more alert, more attentive, and can do better in school if they are not sitting in class with an empty stomach. So how can schools ensure access to good nutrition for kids and not incur debt?

Here are some best practices tips to help you draft these policies to protect children from stigma, to ensure children who qualify receive free or reduced meals, and to make sure students get the nutrition they need.

  1. School meals debt is the parent’s debt and not the child’s, and as such the district should communicate directly with the parents to collect any unpaid meals fees. Districts should not stamp the student’s hand or put a sticker on the student’s shirt as a way to communicate this debt because this may be stigmatizing to the child. Schools can send an email notification or discrete note to the parent or guardian indicating the negative balance. Be sure that if a note is sent home it is addressed to the parent or guardian and that you cannot see the contents of the note from the outside.
  2. Iowa Code Chapter 537 (Iowa’s Consumer Credit Code) prohibits schools from doing any of the following: 1) Posting a list of names of students or meals ID numbers who owe money for school meals (or any other debt) – even if the amount is not listed. 2) Communicating to anyone except the student and student’s family that money is owed. Schools may still hire an attorney or agent to collect the debt. 3) If a note or letter regarding the debt is sent home with the student or mailed, including anything on the outside of the envelope that indicates that the letter is about money owed to the school.
  3. Positioning your point of service at the beginning of the lunch line will avoid serving a student who has a negative account. Once you have already served a student you should not confiscate food for a student who has a negative balance.
  4. If a student has a negative balance check eLook up to see if the student is now eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Send an application for free or reduced meals home if the negative balances reach a certain level.
  5. Consider starting a meals account fund in your district where the community can donate money to fund unpaid meals. If parents have a negative balance they can ask for access to the meals account fund until they can afford to pay for meals. Be sure to set procedures for how the donated funds will be approved to be applied to an individual student account.
  6. Consider non-pricing options to prevent further unpaid meals debt such as the Community Eligibility Provision if available, Provision 2, or universal free breakfast (in the classroom or grab n’ go) if a break-even analysis shows feasibility. If the nonprofit school food service can maintain operations and meal quality without children’s payments for reduced-price meals, they may charge less than the maximum reduced-price meal prices of 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. This can have a positive impact on student performance in the morning if students are in class on a full stomach.
  7. Implement the flexibility allowed for determining the start date of eligibility as the date a complete application is received or the date of the direct certification data file instead of the date processed by the School Food Authority (SFA) or posted on the Iowa Department of Education site.
  8. When determining whether or not to send an unpaid debt to collections, consider the cost of the unpaid balance compared to the cost of collections. Please note: this cost is a cost of the General Fund, not the non-profit school food service fund.
  9. Combat hunger in other ways - Consider opening a food pantry or a backpack program in your district with the help of community partners. This can be a great way to help feed kids who don’t have the means at home. This undertaking can have an enormous impact on the health, well-being, and learning capacity of your students.

Here are some resources from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Unpaid Meal Charges (complete July 1) that can help you review your local policies. As always be sure to consult with your district legal counsel about how to draft these policies and legally collect on student meals debts.

USDA - School Meals Website

SP 29-2017: 2017 Edition of Overcoming the Unpaid Meal Challenge: Proven Strategies from Our Nation’s Schools

SP 23-2017: Unpaid Meal Charges: Guidance and Q&A

SP 47-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Clarification on Collection of Delinquent Meal Payments

SP 46-2016: Unpaid Meal Charges: Local Meal Charge Policies

SP 51-2016: Ensuring Year-long Eligibility in the School Lunch and Breakfast Programs

SP 43-2016: Ensuring Access to Free and Reduced Price School Meals for Low-Income Students

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on September 27, 2022 at 7:08am.