Unpaid Meal Charges
Unpaid meal charges have become a big problem for some districts. USDA has been studying the issue and requested public comments on establishing national standards for meal charges and alternate meals. Commenters from schools said they would prefer that USDA or states do not develop a policy, leave it up to local control. USDA Memo SP 46-2016 states that all districts will be required to have an official Meal Charge Policy by July 1, 2017 and communicate the policy to parents. The policy does not have to be approved by the school board, however, that might help with enforcement if a school implements a strict policy. There is no requirement that you must deny meals or offer an alternate meal. It is a local policy. If your policy is, “we feed all students no matter how much they owe”, you can do that. Just make sure it is in writing so some budget-conscious person does not decide to start implementing a tray dumping policy that you never talked about or approved. Everyone in the school needs to agree to enforce the actual agreed upon policy, not what they think it should be.
What are the rules?
School Food Authorities (SFA) must serve lunches free or at a reduced price to all students who are determined to be eligible for such meals under 7 CFR part 245.
If a student shows up with funds to pay for one meal, the SFA must allow that child to pay for and eat that one meal even if there is a negative balance.
Negative balances are not allowed to be paid from your non-profit school foodservice funds. At the end of the year any negative balances or unpaid meal charges are considered bad debt and must be recouped from funds other than foodservice or written off as bad debt, according to your schools procedure. In many SFAs, this means dollars from the general fund.
Make your policy official and enforceable
Establish a written plan that is communicated to all families and staff. This can be done by placing the policy in student handbooks and on your website. The policy does need to be communicated to all parents in writing, not just on a website. The policy needs to be followed consistently by all staff. Some schools have funds that may have been donated by an organization to help pay for students who occasionally have a meal charge that is not covered and have not submitted an application for free or reduced priced meals.
Establish a policy that works for your district
Some districts set a zero balance where no student can go below a zero balance. Others allow a certain number of meals to go into a negative balance before no more meals are served and some districts allow an indefinite number of alternative meals. Schools are not required to provide an alternate meal, however children do learn better when they are not hungry.
Have a communication system in place to notify families
All good policies have an advance warning systems in place so both students and parents know when balances are running low or they have run out of funds and the student will no longer receive meals or will receive an alternate meal. Your policy should include how, when, and how frequently you will warn students and parents of low, zero or negative balances.
Follow up on negative balances
Schools should plan to spend time trying to collect outstanding funds. Sending letters, e-mailing, calling parents, and sending text messages are all methods used by schools to collect on negative balances. Document all communication attempts with parents to identify what method of communication works best and also to defend against a parent saying they were never informed of the delinquent account.