Hamilton County schools trying to recoup meal debt

Hamilton County schools trying to recoup meal debt

July 1st, 2012 by Kevin Hardy in News

Orchard Knob Elementary cafeteria workers prepared this meal as a future school system recipe under the direction of Chef Cyndie Story.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

Photo by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.


Hamilton County Schools encourages families struggling to afford meal prices to find out whether they're eligible to enroll in federal free and reduced-price lunch programs. Online applications will open July 13 at www.hamilton.schoollunchapp.com. Paper applications will be available at school registration on Aug. 7.


Only elementary and middle school students can charge.

Adults are not allowed to charge, with exceptions of principal approval, a special event or Teacher Appreciation Day.

A la carte items may not be charged.

A la carte items may not be purchased if a student has a negative account balance.*

Procedures for collecting overdue charges shall be designed and monitored by school nutrition department.

*Proposed policy addition for 2012-13

Source: Hamilton County Board of Education


The parent is charged for the full balance of charges owed with no additional fee.

The school district receives 75 percent of collected amount during the first year, 72 percent for future years.

School district receives reimbursement twice monthly.

No term of contract; school system can end agreement at any time.

Source: Hamilton County school nutrition department

Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Hamilton County students charged a collective debt of more than $70,000 on school breakfasts and lunches last school year. That's the equivalent of nearly 30,000 lunches at last year's price of $2.50 for each meal.

Because state regulations don't allow school nutrition programs to carry debt, those student charges will be absolved this month with the school system's general fund picking up the tab.

To combat the growing pile of unpaid meals, officials are looking to a private collections agency to help recoup charges and bad checks. On Thursday, the school board approved the first reading of a measure to work with a third-party collections company.

Administrators recommended using the company Payliance, a Columbus, Ohio, firm that works with school districts, businesses and governments across the country. At its July meeting, the board must vote again for final approval, though some board members expressed interest in exploring options with other companies.

Local officials say their attempts at collecting the money internally are toothless because some parents know that there are no consequences for no-payment since the system pays the money at the end of each fiscal year, no matter what. The school system sent out more than 30,000 letters last year -- about 1,000 each week -- and made thousands more weekly automated phone calls seeking payment.

"This is a debt like any other debt," said Carolyn Childs, director of school nutrition for Hamilton County. "You wouldn't go to McDonald's and say, 'Put this on my ticket and someone else will pay for it at the end of the year.'"

The local issue highlights a problem that plagues school districts across the country: What to do when hungry students venture down the lunch line with no cash in hand. The strictest policies may turn students away with no food or with what's called an "alternative meal" such as a cheese or peanut butter sandwich. Others let them charge meals, even though there's a good chance that many will never repay the debt.

"This is an issue we have struggled with and encouraged [U.S. Department of Agriculture] to establish some guidelines for schools," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, whose 55,000 members serve 60 percent of the nation's public schools.

In a February 2012 School Nutrition Association survey, more than half of respondents told the organization that their districts were experiencing an increase in the number of students showing up without means to pay for their meals. The association has lobbied Congress and the USDA, which oversees school meal programs, but has yet to receive guidance on how to handle the issue.

The local move to use a private company drew questions from some school board members over what kind of tactics the agency would use to collect debt.

"My concern is what are their methods. How do they go about doing this?" said school board member Greg Martin.

Board member David Testerman said the company had contacted him, trying to collect on an unwanted set of knives he received in the mail.

"I'm not saying we shouldn't use it. But I think we need to be careful that it doesn't become something that's harmful to our parents," he said.

Payliance officials didn't return messages asking for comment.

Childs said she will investigate exactly how the company plans to collect the money. By outsourcing the collection work, the school system is hoping to recoup more of its lost cash, while also relieving staff at schools and at the school nutrition office.

"We're not a collections agency. It takes away our time and money," Childs said. "It takes away from other things we need to do."

Some families genuinely struggle with affording meals. In those cases, the school system tries to work with them and see whether they qualify for federal free or reduced-price meal programs, said Sara Vidrine, who works with the local free and reduced-price meal program. In most cases, the unpaid charges come from students paying full price or from reduced-price meals.

"The ones who do call are kind of remorseful. They feel guilty they can't pay," Vidrine said.

But other families know there is no recourse for repeated charges, officials said. One student owes more than $600 for meals last year, while more than 600 students still owe more than $20. Workers often see the same names on charge lists over and over.

"I've had some parents tell me, 'You have to feed my child no matter what,'" Childs said. "That was never the intent of school nutrition. If it was, we'd be given money rather than having to be self-funded."

School nutrition receives no local funding, she said, and relies on free and reduced-price meal reimbursement and the purchase price of meals from students, teachers and visitors to cover food, utility and labor costs.