Tips to Help with Student Lunch Debt for the New School Year

Posted by Renee Pisaturo on Jun 15, 2017 9:03:00 AM


Recently, much media attention has been focused on school cafeterias and the (seemingly) controversial methods used when students cannot pay for their meal. Cafeteria staff have an obligation to balance feeding hungry kids, maintaining financial stability, and following district guidelines. Occasionally, something has to give.

So how do we solve it? The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) division released a reference guide for nutrition programs nationwide on how to help reduce this problem. As you begin to prepare for the new school year, take a look at a few tips from the article:

  1. Make sure eligible students apply for free or reduced priced meals
    Students who are eligible for free or reduced price meals should apply before the start of the school year. Communicating with parents is key – particularly during summer months so student applications are submitted and on file before the first day.

    Offering online meal applications provides parents with an easy and efficient way to apply for meal benefits for their students. Online applications reduce the number of lost or incomplete applications, and they significantly reduce the number of paper applications that need to be processed at the beginning of the school year.

  2. Communicate at start of school events
    Although the first day is ideal, coordinating a communications plan when school begins also enables parents to submit applications. Hosting a “School Meals Booth” at student orientation or start of school events helps offer assistance to parents with the application process. To reach even more parents, consider partnering with community organizations such as:

    • Your PTA
    • Places of worship
    • Social service organizations
  3. Apply on behalf of the student
    Local school officers can apply on behalf of a student on a case by case basis in the event that a parent or guardian has not applied. Click here for more information.  

  4. Offer alternative payment methods
    Offering an online solution to accept meal payments can be another accessible way for parents to give students lunch money. Prepaid accounts can assist staff in monitoring students who have low funds. Parents can also set automatic payments so students do not fall behind. Once a solution is in place, you can proactively send low balance reminders to families for each child's meal account.

    Types of reminders can include:
    • Letters from your Point of Sale system
    • Automated messages from your online payment provider through email or mobile alerts
    • Automated phone calls
    Synchronizing your online system with your account reminder process will help automatically alert parents. Add these reminders to your protocol for each student scenario.See here for a sample reminder process.

  5. Try alternative and discrete methods
    Responding to students who cannot pay for a meal in private or without attention is a best practice. Here are some ideas to help avoid any embarrassment or distress in the cafeteria:

    • Serve students a low-cost/alternate meal in the same serving line as all other meals so a student does not appear "singled-out"
    • Make sure the alternate meal is healthy and provides the same nutritional value
    • Offer alternate “sack” lunches in the nurse’s office. Students can pick up a brown bag lunch prior to entering the cafeteria so it may appear that the student packed a lunch and brought it from home.

Has your school experienced issues with unpaid meal charges? Share your stories and suggestions in the comments below:
Connections Blog

Topics: School Payments, School Lunch, Lunch Debt