Schools wisely chase parents, not kids, over lunch debt

You have to give the Anoka-Hennepin school district, the largest in the state, credit for not exposing itself to the usual headline-inducing solution to parents who don’t pay for their kids’ school lunches.

Schools haven’t always been so bright on the subject, as last year’s brouhaha in Utah showed. There, a cafeteria manager literally ripped lunch trays out of the hands of kids hands because parents hadn’t paid for them.

“We really are trying to keep this adult-to-adult,” Noah Atlas, the district’s child nutrition program director, tells the Star Tribune. “We don’t turn students away from the meal.”


But how is a school district supposed to get its money without looking like Simon Legree in the process?

MPR News’ Peter Cox reported earlier this month that by January, the district will have to turn the debt over to a collection agency.

The amounts owed are staggering. One family owes $4,600. The amount of debt to the school district is up 61 percent in the last few years.

Why the debt? It might be easy to guess, but harder to know. The families who owe the most money are apparently ignoring all attempts to collect on them or work with the district.

Turning to a collection agency invites a headline that makes the school district look meaner that it really is, especially considering that the 1 percent of kids who have debt on their accounts are still getting lunch. But what choice does a district really have?

One idea is to give the deadbeat kids a different lunch — a cheese sandwich, for example. That idea was kicked around at a Missouri school district this fall. But school officials yielded to the obvious negative publicity such a plan draws.

“We heard from our community,” Superintendent Peter Stiepleman, of the Columbia school district, told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “Our community said, ‘We are not a community that refuses our kids food.'”

One parent in that district, by the way, said he doesn’t pay for his kid’s lunch because he already pays taxes to the school district.