In the coming school year, you may need a policy on kids without lunch money

by Courtney Sanik

On Board Online • August 14, 2017

By Courtney Sanik
Senior Policy Consultant

Countless numbers of school food service operations have an accounts payable problem: kids don't have their lunch money or a zero balance on their electronic account. But students need to eat, and their academic performance and health can suffer if they don't.

Don't be surprised if this issue comes before your school board. A unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture called the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) is now requiring school districts (as "school food authorities" for federal school food programs) to adopt policies addressing the charging of school meals and unpaid meal charges. This requirement takes effect in the 2017 - 2018 school year i.e., by July 1. Parents must be notified annually about the policy.

If your board is not required to have a policy, this could be handled by administrators without board input, but your superintendent may want the board's ideas on what approaches would be best for the community.

The Obama administration and New York State have issued guidances indicating that districts should not let a child go hungry because of an inability to pay. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Residents may object to having their tax dollars diverted from academics to pay to feed students who do not qualify for federally subsidized meals (or those who do qualify but choose not to receive subsidized meals).

Like so many issues that come up in public education, the lunch money problem is one without any easy answers. For instance, many schools have a practice of allowing a child to "charge" a meal to be repaid later. But this can be problematic for your school business office. Collections can be difficult, leaving some districts with unpaid balances into the thousands of dollars.

Other schools give students with empty pockets a low-cost, cold item, such as a sandwich with milk. But this must be handled delicately; drawing attention to a student's inability to pay can be considered "lunch shaming." In the field of school food service, taking a meal away from a child who has gone through the lunch line because of inability to pay is frowned upon.

Some districts provide an alternate meal in a brown bag via the school office, as though it were dropped off from home.

Depending on the demographics of your district, you may be able to offer free meals to all students. This can be supported by the federal government if an entire school or district qualifies for "community eligibility." (See .)

If your district or building in the district is not eligible for community eligibility, NYSSBA Policy 8505, Charging School Meals, is the place to start your board's discussions on this issue. Having such a policy is required if your district participates in federal school programs.

NYSSBA's most recent update provides clear language for the items that may be charged. It also provides an example of the number of charges per student, with differences suggested per grade level, allowing more for younger grades and fewer for older grades. That can help to promote increasing responsibility.

Additional updated language includes an example of the system to be used for charging meals and collecting repayments. It addresses the use of automated systems for payment or collections, automatic low balance notifications and automatic replenishment options, guidelines on when debt should be considered uncollectable, and what is to be done with leftover funds at the end of the year.

Two items of note: Federal regulations require that children eligible for reduced price meals pay a certain maximum amount per meal; retaining unused funds would result in the per-meal price exceeding this amount. Therefore, all excess funds remaining for these children must be refunded. Also under federal regulations, repayment of bad debt from unpaid meal charges are not an allowable expense for federal funds. Such alternate funding could come from donations, fundraisers or other sources.

"It's entirely possible that a board could have all the right policies and still end up 'eating' the cost of meals," said Jessica Goldstein, NYSSBA's deputy director for policy services. "Unfortunately, this is an area where the numbers sometimes don't add up. The idea is to manage and minimize deficit spending, if not eliminate it."

If your district hasn't updated its Charging School Meals policy (or doesn't have one yet) you can request a sample with updated language. Please contact Or call (800) 342-3360 and ask to speak with someone in Policy Services. Subscribe to the NYSSBA Policy Update Service to automatically receive updates on policy language.

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