TRAVERSE CITY — A new school year brings new classes, new teachers, new friends, new backpacks, pens, pencils and folders.
But many school districts will continue to go through the same old song and dance when it comes to lunch and their students racking up school lunch debt.
The School Nutrition Association reported in 2018 that 75 percent of public school districts had unpaid lunch debt at the end of the school year, averaging between $2,000-$2,500. That is a 4 percent increase from the previous year’s data. Of the school districts with unpaid student meal debt, 40.2 percent said the number of students with debt increased last school year.
“Some might ask, ‘Why do you have student debt for lunch anyway?’ We’re going to serve the kids lunch whether they have their money or not,” Suttons Bay Public Schools Superintendent Mike Carmean said.
“There’s all too many horror stories of having a plate of food just dumped in the garbage because they didn’t have money. We would never do that. I know a lot of schools wouldn’t.”
The problem is national.
Data has shown school districts across the county vary in debt between less than $10 at the lowest and nearing $900,000 at the highest.
Warwick Public Schools in Rhode Island racked up $77,000 in lunch debt. A lunchroom employee in New Hampshire was fired for allowing a student to take food and pay the school back the next day. A Minnesota high school tried to stop students from walking at the graduation ceremony if they had lunch debt. Some schools stamped students’ hands or had them complete chores to work off the debt. Others have denied students lunches for having accounts overdrawn by a few dimes.
Suttons Bay had a $2,700 lunch debt at the end of last school year. The Mitten Brewing Company stepped up at the behest of one of its employees, Joe Symons — who is also a teacher at Suttons Bay — and cut a check to bring that to $0.
“It’s unbelievably generous,” Symons said. “If there are parents weighing options like, ‘Oh, I sure would like to sign up Suzie for cross country this year, but she’s got $80 worth of lunch debt. I’ve got to pick something. I’ve got to pick one or the other.’ It’s really nice they don’t have to make that choice, now.”
Other school districts offer different meal options, which experts say are not as nutritional and also cause students to feel less worthy and more self-conscious.
Allyson McBride-Culver, a reading specialist at Traverse City Area Public Schools and president of the Traverse City Education Association, said it is heartbreaking to see those students, especially when the lunch might be their only meal of the day.
“There’s a dignity piece that comes with this to be around your peers and have to deal with that,” McBride-Culver said. “There are kids who know they are going to go to lunch and have to pick up an empty tray with a half a sandwich and an apple on it while their friends around them are getting hot dogs or tacos or nuggets.”
This goes far beyond the debate over what schools should and should not be responsible for when it comes to caring for children, McBride-Culver said.
“It’s not their fault they don’t have lunch money. It’s not their fault a lunch isn’t packed for them,” McBride-Culver said. “We exist to educate. We can’t effectively educate kids who are hungry.”
Symons said teachers, food service workers and other school employees paying down a student’s debt out of their own pocket is one of education’s “dirty, little secrets.”
“You’ll be surprised at the extent they sometimes go to to make sure debt is paid,” Symons said. “It happens so often, and part of you wishes it didn’t have to be done — that this wasn’t a problem.”
Kingsley Area Schools, Glen Lake Community Schools and Forest Area Community Schools have all had anonymous donors either pay off the entire debt or a large chunk in the last few years. TCAPS is starting the school year already in the black on money for school lunches thanks to fundraising efforts and donations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in an effort to curb this problem, set policy in place in July 2017 that required schools to develop plans for students who have insufficient funds to pay for their meals. Many districts took advantage of the Community Eligibility Provision, which began in the 2014-15 school year and allows schools to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting family applications.
Districts using CEP are reimbursed based on the percentage of students eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Northport and Mancelona are just two of the many districts in the area that have seen a drastic reduction in their lunch debt since using CEP. Northport saw its debt decrease from more than $3,000 at the end of the 2015-16 school year to less than $375 last year. Mancelona had more than $1,700 in 2016-17 and less than $20 in 2018-19.
Free and reduced lunch options are also offered through the National School Lunch Program. Kingsley Superintendent Keith Smith said a lot of it comes down to parents filling out the necessary paperwork to qualify for those assistance programs.
“I know there’s pride and that parents think they should be able to provide for their kids without asking for help, but it is an expense and it does add up,” Smith said. “So it’s OK to take advantage of those programs.”
Whether or not those forms are filled out or programs are taken advantage of, Smith knows one thing for sure.
“Nobody’s going to let a kid go hungry,” he said. “Every school is going to make sure kids get fed.”