Student Lunch Debt: A Growing Problem for Schools

school lunch debtIt’s common knowledge that school districts across the nation face budget crises. But what’s less common knowledge is that a large part of the crises can be attributed to student lunch debt. An Edweek study revealed that in 2010, a 21,000 student district registered $54,000 in unpaid meal debt. A poorer 9,000 student district in Connecticut registered more than $60,000 at one point.  What can be done to tackle these problems?

Problem #1: Parents whose children qualify for free and reduced lunch don’t apply to these programs.

Solution: Include applications for free and reduced lunch with school enrollment or registration forms so parents are more aware of these programs. A more efficient alternative is to incorporate all the back-to-school forms into online registration so parents don’t have to deal with loose papers and can ensure that all forms are completed. Make sure families apply early so they qualify on the first day of school. One local education agency in the Midwest is developing a video in English and Spanish to guide parents through applying for free and reduced lunch programs.

Problem #2: Schools acquire massive debt from unpaid meal balances. A School Nutrition Association survey found that 53% of school districts were accumulating debt from unpaid meal charges. New York City public schools even amassed $42 million in debt from unpaid school meals between 2004 and 2011.

Solution: Set up a prepayment system so parents can easily add money to their student’s lunch accounts and refill balances when necessary. With online registration, schools can also assess fees for unpaid balances, a way to increase accountability for parents to pay their debts. Additionally, schools can set up reminder “alerts” through text or email for parents about low or negative balances and ensure that these reminders are available in all languages spoken by families in the school. Many local education agencies nationwide are also adopting community eligibility provisions so that families and local businesses can donate to lunch services to cover the cost of unpaid or alternate meals.

Problem #3: Schools don’t update technology to support infrastructure for easy handling of lunch program forms and payments.

Solution: Consider implementing an online registration and enrollment system to cut hours of labor and thousands of papers. In 2013, 51% of students attending public school in the United States were eligible for free and reduced lunch, up from 38% in 2000. Applications for free and reduced lunch are in higher demand, but that doesn’t have to mean more labor for school admin or higher administrative costs. Based on one of K-12 Online’s client districts, Sublette County, which contains approximately 1000 students, school admins saved 1,145 hours for one year from not having to print packets, sort information, and manually enter data.

If you’d like to learn more about how K-12 Online can help your school reduce student lunch debt, visit our website or schedule a demo.

For more solutions about tackling the challenges of unpaid school meals go to


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  • August 24, 2016
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