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.”

Smart.

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.

  • jon

    I pay taxes to my local school district and I don’t even have kids going there eating lunches….
    Maybe I should try to slip out of work to get lunch at the school… I pay taxes!

  • Mike

    I imagine this parent-
    ‘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.’
    -will be a person who complains about not getting enough social security money when they retire.

  • Chris

    I wonder how many school lunches it takes to equal the Vikings stadium handout. I think the state can afford to pay the debt off.

    • I’m pretty sure school districts are funded more locally than through the state.

      Why not just include meals with the whole price of education?

      /I know that school budgets are tight, which is a complete shame.

      • jon

        Budgets are always tight.
        People/companies/schools spend the money they are given to spend.

        If “the budget it tight” is your reason to not do something, what is really being said is “That’s not a priority compared to other things we already spend money on.”

        Though given the goal of the school is to teach students not feed them, it makes sense that the priority of the school would be educating kids rather than feeding them… particularly when they have funds that are ear marked for feeding kids.

        • Brian Simon

          It’s true the mission is to teach, not feed. The problem is some kids don’t get enough to eat at home & underfed kids don’t learn well. We as a society can respond with “tough luck, kid.” Or combine resources & give the kid a chance to better him/herself. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  • Brian Simon

    “he doesn’t pay for his kid’s lunch because he already pays taxes to the school district.”

    There’s the answer: don’t go to collections, convert it to a tax lien & garnish wages, if necessary.

    • Jack Ungerleider

      In the city of St Paul you get your city services bill (for Plowing, street sweeping, etc.) separate from your property tax bill. If you choose not to pay it by the deadline they add it to your property taxes with the 4.25% finacnce/service charge. I would think a similar approach could be used here.

  • Jen

    I don’t have a kid in school and it’s been many years since I’ve been in school, but don’t a lot of kids get free/subsidized lunch based on need? So would it be safe to assume that the people who owe money for their kid’s lunches have the ability to pay or maybe have not just applied for subsidized lunch? A $4600 lunch bill would be oppressive for most families I’d imagine.

    • I think that’s a generally safe assumption. Considering the price of lunch is about $2.30, that’s 2,000 lunches . Even if there are multiple kids involved, that still takes a lot of work considering there are only 170 days in the Minnesota school calendar.

  • wendywulff

    My kids’ school didn’t let the kids go more than $10 in the hole. They got a peanut butter sandwich after that. It is possible to get huge lunch costs on ala carte items, and some parents don’t realize you can send a note to the school telling them that your kids can only get hot lunch, not ala carte items.