‘This is not free’: Families who can afford school lunch rack up debt in JoCo district

Shawnee Mission board members told the district last month that $16,500 in unpaid lunch balances — only a small portion of which can be attributed to the district’s neediest families — was threatening its new policy of guaranteeing children a hot lunch even when their accounts or pockets are empty.

But although board members and district staff have implored parents to cover their lunch debts, negative food balances have since climbed to nearly $18,000, more than triple the typical annual amount.

And it’s still the families who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch who are responsible for the majority of unpaid bills.

“These folks have the way and the means to pay,” Rick Atha, the district’s associate superintendent for organizational support, told board members Monday. “I don’t know why they’re not. Maybe they will after tonight. I hope so.”

At the meeting, Food Services Director Nancy Coughenour and Atha stressed that the problem was not with lower-income families.

Roughly 400 free and reduced lunch students have generated only $2,200 of the district’s total lunch debt, staff said, and their balances can be covered by donations. School staff already works with these families to pay what they can, and their debt is most often accrued during brief times when kids aren’t yet approved for the aid..

“These are kids many times who don’t know where their next meal is coming from,” Atha said. “These kids are not where the problem is in this policy.”

In past years, Shawnee Mission students who did not qualify for free lunch were given a cheese sandwich and a milk on days they didn’t have enough money to pay for a meal. But that policy changed last fall, when board members opted for a policy that provides a hot meal to all students.

Board members said then their goal was twofold. They wanted to ensure that every child — regardless of whether their parents or guardians couldn’t afford or simply forgot to put money in a lunch account — ate a complete meal. Board members also wanted to stop singling out students receiving the handout cheese sandwich.

By allowing kids to accrue food balances, the district hoped it could better identify families who qualify for free and reduced lunch but haven’t applied.

And parents with the means to pay for lunch could pay off balances online, in person or over the phone.

Instead, it’s these parents the district says have racked up most of the debt.

And so far, many haven’t responded to personal phone calls, emails and district communications asking them to pay up.

Coughenour told board members that some families have blocked their calls, routed food service staff to other families members or insisted they have until the end of the year to pay.

Some kids, she said, have reported to staff that their parents do not believe the district will do anything about the tabs. The district has said families with unpaid balances will be turned over to collections agencies by the end of the year.

“This is not free meals,” Coughenour said. “We are providing meals to children but we expect the parents to hopefully at some point pay their bills because their debts are increasing.”

It’s unclear how the policy would change if parents don’t cover balances by April, when the board is expected to formally review the policy. But Atha said district staff would return to board members in April with “innovative and creative” ways to neutralize lunch costs.

Board members have previously indicated that negative food balances of this magnitude are unsustainable and exceed the food service department’s budget. But they have also expressed an unwillingness to return to the former policy.

Board member Heather Ousley said she knows educators who have in the past paid for student lunches with their own money to help a child. And she said she hoped the district could continue with a tweaked policy that doesn’t punish kids for money-related issues.

“I certainly would not want to once again place that burden on our educators who might feel bad about making sure that child gets a lunch hand,” Ousley said. “And I certainly wouldn’t want a child punished or to feel ashamed because their parent is irresponsible or lacks apparently the ability to realize they are going to be turned over to collections.”

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Katy Bergen covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.