Dean Timmons, school nutrition program director for the Polk County School System, said schools here are facing the dilemma. He said he spent the last two weeks compiling numbers of outstanding debt from school lunches and will soon be presenting the information to the Polk County Board of Education.
The school system had an excess of $11,000 in outstanding charges in the program, Timmons said.
“It’s always been there, but it’s just more pronounced with the economy,” he said.
Timmons said the policy is that schools will let students charge three meals before trying to collect. However, he said that policy isn’t really followed and schools let students charge more meals than the policy allows.
He said typically the school sends a letter home with the child and mails one to the parent, along with a free lunch application.
Many parents don’t return the free lunch application, he said.
School lunch debt puts school workers in an awkward situation, he said.
“Our managers, bless their hearts, they aren’t going to refuse a child a meal,” he said. “It’s kind of a losing proposition for us.”
He said those owing more than $20 for lunch can be sent to a collection agency, but agencies rarely bother with such a low amount. However, he said there are some families that owe $60 or $70 per child.
“If the family is in dire straights, and have no income, you can’t do anything,” Timmons said.
“We’re doing everything we can do to collect those charges and it falling on deaf ears I think.”
He said some systems are providing an alternative meal for students whose parents have failed to pay for lunch. That meal must consist of three of the five nutritional components, but can be something like a peanut butter sandwich with a carton of milk or a cheese sandwich and milk.
Timmons said he knows that pinpoints and humiliates students and, so far, he hasn’t been willing to use that method as an alternative.
Timmons said the outstanding debt and an increased number of those on the free lunch program are a “sign of the times.”
In previous years, according to Timmons, the county had has a 49 to 50 percentage of its students receiving free lunches. Now, it is 55 to 60 percent, he said.
He said he wishes more parents who are in financial trouble would sign their children up for free lunches. The reason is simple, he said. The school system gets more money for those on free and reduced-price lunches than for those paying for their meals.
Timmons said the system receives $2.57 from the federal government for every free lunch meal served and $2.17 for every reduced-price meal served. It receives only 24 cents for every paid meal served.
He said, unfortunately, there aren’t enough school personnel to visit homes of lunch debtors to encourage and help them fill out the applications.