Lincoln won’t punish students with lunch debt; meals will be served

Lincoln won’t punish students with lunch debt; meals will be served

LINCOLN – As school districts statewide attempt to contend with the rising number of unpaid school lunch balances, Lincoln officials say they won’t give students who accrue a balance alternative meals.

The district’s recently amended school meal policy seeks to ensure that students are still being provided with a lunch, while attempting to decrease the amount of money owed to the school for non-payment of those lunches.

This year in Cumberland, the School Committee agreed to bring back alternative lunches of nut butter or cheese sandwiches for students with outstanding balances, reversing an earlier move away from those meals due the idea of “lunch shaming.”

Cumberland’s outstanding lunch debt was more than $41,000 when the new rules were enacted.

Lincoln school leaders say they won’t follow the same approach as Cumberland. Instead, under the rewritten policy, students will receive the meal of the day, but will be unable to purchase extra a la carte menu items.

Lincoln’s lunch debt is less than Cumberland, or around $25,000 at the start of this school year.

Students with unpaid balances carry the debt until they leave the school system, and the district foots the bill.

The revisions to Lincoln’s school lunch policy lay out a process for communicating and action for delinquent account holders.

If an account becomes delinquent, then the School Department will notify the family multiple times. The students would still be able to purchase the meal of the day, but would not be able to continue to accrue a delinquent balance by adding on a la carte items such as chips and cookies.

After multiple means of communication with the delinquent account holder, the schools then have the right to refer the account to collections.

Policy subcommittee member Mary Anne Roll said step one is ensuring that parents fill out paperwork to see whether they’re eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“We want the people who need the support to have the support,” she said.

Next, the parents of students with balances in the red would be notified, preferably before the account is $30 or $40 behind, Roll said.

Previously, principals would attempt to contact parents by sending letters home with the student, but concerns were raised that this was not appropriate as it could make the student feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, or that the paperwork may not reach the parent.

“It has been messy. Messages sent home in backpacks aren’t always seen by parents,” Roll said. “We were also concerned about how quickly parents were being notified that their accounts were in arrears.”

Now, parents have the option to sign up for MySchoolBucks online where they can keep track of their balance and load money into the account. They’ll receive a text when their account balance dips into the negative.

After several attempts to contact parents, the district has the right to send the account to collections.

“We don’t ever want it to get to that, but this was an attempt to help parents understand that there is no free lunch, except for the kids who qualify for it,” Roll said. “Kids and families need to understand how this works.”

Roll said the problem doesn’t appear to be children who are lacking the resources.

No matter what, Roll said the district would not deny the healthy lunch of the day to a child.

“Serving cheese sandwiches punishes the child for the actions of adults who, for whatever reason, are not on top of this,” she said.