Hamilton County school board looks to tackle unpaid school lunch debt, policy

Teriyaki beef and rice with broccoli and a fruit cup are among the choices during lunch Thursday at East Hamilton Middle High School.
photo Photographed in the Times Free Press studio on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn., this typical lunch to pack for school includes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, carrots, a tube of yogurt and a box of apple juice, among other items.

Hamilton County's unpaid school lunch debt might grow while the system ensures students have something to eat at school under a potential board of education policy change.

Currently, students in grades K-8 who have not paid for breakfast or lunch are able to charge the meals to their account and still eat, but students in grades 9-12 have not had that option.

Though the district did not have a board policy for how a student who was unable to pay for lunch was handled, some board members have said that in the past food has been taken away or students have been embarrassed.

But a new policy up for discussion at Thursday's school board meeting would allow high school students to charge up to $40 in meals to their accounts.

"We have to feed our kids," said board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, at Monday's meeting. "Bottom line, they can't learn if they have empty bellies, and they need to have breakfast and lunch."

Most school board members were happy with the revised policy Monday. The board reviews all policies on an annual basis. Some wondered Monday what would happen as the debt accrued though, especially for the students.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, asked district officials if $40 was too high - not because of worries about the debt the district would incur, but because it might be evidence of a bigger problem at home.

"If you can't afford $5 a day [for] lunch, you certainly can't afford a $40 charge," Thurman said. "Maybe we need to tackle it before it gets to $40. Sometimes you let a bill get so far out of hand, you can't pay it."


Thursday, Sept. 19, at 4:30 p.m.: Work session with MGT Consulting GroupThursday, Sept. 19, at 5 p.m.: Executive session with board attorneyThursday, Sept. 19, at 5:30 p.m.: Regular monthly school board meeting

Superintendent Bryan Johnson said parents already get an automated call when their child's balance goes into the negative. He also said the plan would be to intervene as a student's unpaid meal charges increased.

"Once a student gets to $20-25, there's probably something going on there at home," he said. "There's some type of issue, and there's got to be an additional conversation."

The $40 limit would allow for about two weeks of unpaid meals, said Brent Goldberg, the district's chief business officer.

"The plan would be to intervene then before it gets to $40," Goldberg said. "Currently, the system allows $0 and they are having to put the food away if [students] are getting up there and don't have money in their account. This would allow us to make sure the kids get fed."

At the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the district had $38,547 in unpaid school lunch charges. About 7% of K-8 students who pay for their meals at school had an account debt, and the average debt was around $54.

Many schools in Hamilton County do not even charge for breakfast or lunch. If most students at an individual school qualify for the federal free lunch program, then the school can provide free meals to the entire student body through another federal eligibility program.

Only about 15,700 students of Hamilton County's nearly 45,000 students pay the full price for meals: $2 for breakfast and $3 for lunch.

If the board adopts the new policy change and allows high school students to also accrue unpaid lunch charges, Goldberg estimates it could add another $15,800 to the district's unpaid school lunch debt, bumping the total to about $40,000-$50,000 for the 2019-20 school year.

State regulations don't allow school nutrition programs to carry debt, so unpaid student charges are either collected from families or absolved, with the school system's general fund picking up the tab.

School lunch debt has been a problem plaguing school districts across the country. The strictest policies often turn students away with no food or provide an "alternative meal," such as a cold sandwich. Others let students charge meals, even though many will never repay the debt. Recently, wealthy philanthropists and businesses have stepped in and pledged to pay off student lunch debt.

More than 75% of school districts across the country reported having unpaid student lunch debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to a 2018 report from the School Nutrition Association.

"School meal programs continue to face challenges when students who are not enrolled in the free meal program lack adequate funds to pay for their meals. The survey found widespread unpaid meal debt, even as districts employ multiple proactive tactics to prevent or minimize student meal charges," according to the report.

Many of those districts who reported debt have school staff notify parents directly about the low balances or meal charges, and most try to help families find assistance.

Only half accepted donations or provided financial assistance in paying off such debts, though.

A Rhode Island school district made the news this year when Chobani donated more than $47,000 to pay off the district's student lunch debt after it was reported the district would give students only cold lunches if they couldn't pay, according to CNN.

A Pennsylvania school district also came under fire this year after a letter was sent to parents threatening that their children would end up in foster care if parents didn't pay their debts to the Wyoming Valley West School District, according to the Washington Post. That district initially declined to accept donations, but reversed that decision after public outcry.

Hamilton County school board members said they would welcome local businesses or organizations who are looking to help the school district to pay off student lunch debt.

"There could always be some business partners who are willing to pick up the tab for the lunches that kids just can't pay," Thurman said. "They could partner with a school and at the end of the year or the end of the quarter, take care of some of those debts if it gets to be a problem."

Goldberg hinted at Monday's meeting that he is aware of some potential interested parties who have already contacted the district about such a move.

The board will vote on the policy change during its monthly school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.