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Why Are More Schools Going After Families for Lunch Debt?

More than 75 percent of school districts reported school lunch debt in the previous school year, and 40 percent say their debt is growing.

Around 40 families in a Pennsylvania school district got a threatening letter from an administrator this month: If they failed to pay off their school lunch debt of more than $10, the district said, they could lose their children.

The letter, signed by Joseph Muth, director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District, told parents that sending kids to school without lunch money was a form of neglect, and "the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care."

Since then, local officials have condemned Muth's threats. Legal experts have weighed in, saying a parent's inability to pay would be unlikely to qualify as neglect in the state. And on Wednesday, the school board apologized for the letter and reversed its initial decision not to accept donations to pay off the $22,000 in total lunch debt in the school district, NPR reports.

While the groundswell of outrage has brought school lunch debt back into the national spotlight, advocates say donations and apologies will not get at the root of the problem.

No one knows exactly how much school lunch debt exists across the country, because districts keep this information under wraps, according to Elyse Homel Vitale, a senior advocate with the non-profit California Food Policy Advocates, which supports policies aimed at increasing food access. What's clear is that Wyoming Valley West is not alone: A survey from the School Nutrition Association, representing 58,000 school nutrition officials, found that more than 75 percent of school districts reported lunch debt in the previous school year, and 40 percent say their debt is growing.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program, has said its funds cannot be used to wipe out school meal debt, even though the federal child nutrition programs are aimed at curbing this problem in the first place: In 2018, 30 million children living in households with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty line received free meals through the NSLP. But fewer kids are getting free lunch with every year, the Economic Research Service has found—and even more are denied meals because of administrative errors or the program's limitations.

Kids who are in households receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are automatically eligible for free meals, but school districts and states have to certify them first. According to Food Research & Action Center analyst Crystal FitzSimons, this isn't always done correctly: Some states simply fail to enroll the 95 percent of SNAP participants required to be enrolled by the USDA. Other times, a child gets overlooked when their name is misspelled.

The consequences for such a small error can be extreme: As previous investigations from the non-profit newsroom New Food Economy have shown, families sometimes believe their child is receiving free meals, while they're actually racking up hundreds of dollars in debt—debt that districts can then go after using for-profit collection agencies. The majority of districts in SNA's 2018 survey said they notify parents directly about debt or offer some kind of assistance, but only half accept donations.

One reason for the increase in controversies like this one might be that the USDA required schools to begin collecting unpaid meal debt in 2017, according to SNA spokesperson Diane Pratt-Heavner.

There's also a wider problem with the NSLP: Its eligibility criteria uses what economists agree is an outdated measure of poverty that overlooks cost of living and other factors that cause children to be food insecure.

Many districts are already pursuing one potential solution to the problem: opting into a new provision of the program, known as community eligibility, which started in 2014. Under community eligibility, schools with a certain percentage of low-income kids qualify to provide free meals to the entire student body. This allows children who can't navigate the application process or are not eligible for free meals but are still food insecure to get free meals without the hassle of signing up. "What can happen immediately is schools who are eligible through the federal nutrition programs can serve meals universally free, so there isn't a federal definition of low-income driving whether a family has access to meals," Homel Vitale says.

"[Community eligibility] really is designed to support high-need schools," FitzSimons says. If a district has a lower percentage of low-income students, it can sometimes still opt in—but it will only be reimbursed for a certain percentage of the meals it offers. Schools can also eliminate the co-pay for kids who receive reduced-price lunch (in households 130 to 185 percent of the poverty line) and simply charge those meals to the school nutrition account.

According to FRAC's database, 4,633 school districts—serving 13.6 million children—have adopted community eligibility. But in Pennsylvania, only 959 of the 1,264 eligible schools have done so. None of the three schools listed under the Wyoming Valley West School District are participating in the community eligibility provision, or CEP: Two are not eligible, but one elementary school has more than 40 percent "identified students" (those students automatically eligible for free lunch), meaning it could adopt the program.

In some districts, administrators have determined that feeding kids for free is not worth the cost. "School are big businesses, and they have large budgets to balance," Homel Vitale says. "I would hope that doesn't get in the way of a school choosing to adopt CEP, but certainly it does sometimes."

Oregon recently passed a law to get around this problem, guaranteeing that schools will be reimbursed for 90 percent of their free meals, no matter their poverty level. California has seen adoption rise since the state required the poorest schools to provide free meals.

Legally, it's within a school's rights to reach out to families and ask them for the fees. But when a family is being threatened with foster care for a couple of unpaid meals? "[School lunch debt] shouldn't stand in the way of a student being able to learn," Homel Vitale says.