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Dealing with lunch debt

May 10, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

After struggling for years to cut down on unpaid lunch bills, procedures put in place over the last several years are now paying off, Tri-State area school officials said.

The problem, which left Washington County with a $15,000 deficit at the end of the 2001-02 school year, is a common topic of conversation when food service directors gather at meetings and conferences, said Gary Dodds, Washington County Public Schools food and nutrition supervisor.

Unlike private companies, public school systems can't just automatically cut off customers, Dodds said.

The Jefferson County, W.Va. School system, Washington County Schools and Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District now have procedures in place under which families can pre-pay for children's meals, an approach many school systems are using, said Ann Ziobrowski, food service director for Chambersburg Area School District. In all three school systems, students also may pay each day with cash.

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In the fall of 2002, the Washington County Board of Education adopted the current policy regarding charging for school lunches.

The policy states that if an elementary school student's bill has not been paid or the student does not have cash, a cashier will give the student a charge slip to take home to the parents, he said. If the debt is not paid after two occasions, a "nutritious alternate" will be substituted for the menu entree and the school will not provide a la carte items, such as cookies, Dodds said.

At first the lunch alternate was a salad, Dodds said. At the students' request, that was switched to bologna and cheese sandwiches, he said.

Middle school students are only able to charge one meal before an alternative lunch is offered, Dodds said

High school students can't charge meals, under the policy.

For the 2002-03 school year, the unpaid lunch debt was down to about $600 and for the current year the debt is expected to be less than $1,000, he said.

"The policy has been wonderful," he said.

Under the policy, "Families with chronic charge problems receive a meal benefit application mailed to their home. They may also receive a legal collection letter or information pertaining to a referral to the Department of Social Services."

The system has never turned anyone over to a collection agency, Dodds said.

In August 2002, Jefferson County Schools changed its policy for school meals, eliminating the practice of students charging their meals, said Carolyn Barnett, food service coordinator for the system.

Administrators ended the ability to charge meals after having problems with parents not paying for the charges, especially in the cases of families that moved, Barnett said.

The school system has used a collection agency to recover much of the money owed, she said.

The school system did not have any problems with debt last year or this year because of the new policy requiring families to either pre-pay for the lunches or pay at the time of the transaction, she said.

Each student has an account with a number used throughout his or her public school years in the county, she said. If the student forgets to bring a card to access the account information, an employee can scan in the information, she said.

If a student has no money and no food, the school will provide lunch, Ziobrowski said.

While 11 elementary schools served by the Chambersburg district use regular cash registers, the other 10 schools have electronic systems through which families can pre-pay for their children's meals, she said.

The pre-pay system has been praised by parents who like the comfort of knowing that their children's meals are paid for ahead of time, she said.

Students can charge meals up to three times, but can't do it again until the charges are paid, she said.

The school district provides meals to elementary school students on the rare occasion when the meal is not paid for, she said. It is not the child's fault the family did not pay for the meal, she said.

The school district has lost about $500 in revenue a year for about the last five years because families have not paid the bills, she said.

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