Since the pandemic began, schools in Bucks County and across the country have been feeding students for free — no questions asked and no debt running up on their school accounts.
Students and their families have also not been asked to pay debts incurred before the pandemic. The schools were not authorized and did not attempt to collect this debt given the pandemic conditions.
Now school is back and the universal federal free lunch program has expired. With it, districts can resume their lunch debt collection policies. And the Bristol Borough School District made national headlines last week for writing off all student meal debts from the previous year.
While officials elsewhere may be considering doing the same, no other district in Bucks County has forgiven due school lunch counts. In Bristol Borough, the council wrote off more than $21,000 in debt accumulated over several years, but announced it would collect debt incurred from this school year.
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Some students are starting the new college year with sales, as Bucks County food nutrition officials said the debt from past meals carries over from year to year.
“Any debt related to student meals is carried over to the student’s account until the following school year,” said Lori Deni, business and food manager for the Centennial School District, which has six schools. . “For graduating students or students leaving the district, the Nutrition Services Department will notify parents and guardians of any debt and provide information on payment options.
“Parents and guardians are also notified when a student’s school lunch account reaches a negative balance.”
Bucks County schools strive to ‘never turn down a meal’, eliminate stigma
Gerry Giarratana, director of food services, transportation and warehouse for the Palisades School District, said his students have racked up just over $1,200 in student meal debt since last year.
While meals were free, a la carte items were not covered by the universal lunch program.
Each school district goes about fundraising differently, he said.
“Each school district sets its own criteria. If there’s a student who doesn’t even make payments on even a dollar-a-week payment plan, (that’s considered) dead debt. , which then moves into whatever this school district does in terms of recovery,” Giarratana said. “In some districts, if what’s owed exceeds $300, they take (parents) to Small Claims Court.”
Giarratana said it doesn’t work that way and instead looks for other ways to contact families and direct them to payment arrangements and applying for the free and reduced-price meal program.
“We send letters, call houses and do whatever we can to get them into a program for a monthly payment, but if they leave the district and disappear, we have to write that off and the general fund will have to cover,” Giarratana said “Right now we may have $1,200 in debt (for student lunch), but that’s active school debt…we would never turn down a meal, regardless of the balance.”
Bristol Borough is innovative in its approach and should be seen as a role model for other districts to follow, said Dan O’Brien, education coordinator for Children’s First PA.
Children’s First PA is a nonprofit organization that advocates a whole-child approach to meeting the needs of young students.
“Bristol Borough School District is to be commended. They had residents speaking out on this issue, something they felt could easily be done to help others in the community at a time when families still have financial difficulties,” O’Brien said. “School meal debt has always been a weird thing that goes under the radar, but for every day a child can’t afford to pay, it’s very stigmatising.
“They are isolated, sometimes ostracized and given cheaper and unhealthy food; it becomes apparent to other children that they cannot afford” to buy better meals.
Guest review:No more student meal debt
Currently, Bristol Borough is the only school district in Bucks County to have completely eliminated previous school lunch debt.
Giarratana and other food service managers must walk a tightrope between balancing their food pounds without food shame. Giarratana said laws were in place to prevent the tactic and his department was going a step or two beyond that.
“Years ago, students were ashamed of having a balance, and because of that, we are not allowed to tell a primary student a negative balance, and we only tell secondary students if they ask,” Giarratana said. “The policies here have changed so that we are not even able to settle a debt until it has gone bad for six meals.”
At this point, Giarratana said, the head of the school will send a letter to the student’s residence, and if it remains unanswered, Giarratana himself will contact the household, usually by phone, to work out a payment agreement. .
Giarratana said the school principal gets involved and contacts the family if the debt reaches 30 meals.
End of universal free meal program this year
As the universal free lunch program expired this summer, forcing parents and guardians to reapply for the benefit for their students, some districts found another way to ensure meals were served to everyone.
Nearly 30,000 students at schools in Bucks and eastern Montgomery County qualify for free school meals or pay a reduced price based on family size and income, according to estimates from the Annie E Foundation. Casey, a nonprofit child advocacy organization founded in 1907.
In the borough of Bristol, where past sales have been forgiven, some 65-70% of students are entitled to free and reduced-price lunches, a district official said this summer.
The Bristol Township School District has implemented its community eligibility provision for this school year, during which all enrolled students are eligible to receive free breakfast and lunch each school day.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 provides local education agencies with this alternative to collecting household applications through the National School Breakfast and School Breakfast Programs. national school lunch, eliminating what she saw as unnecessary paperwork and frustration. it can accompany the process.
The provision is a reimbursement option for educational agencies and eligible schools that wish to provide free meals to all children in times of dire need.
In the meantime, students and guardians shouldn’t count on the state to completely eliminate school lunch fees anytime soon.
For subscribers:Bucks schools have fed millions of students during the pandemic. Is this a universal free lunch model?
While O’Brien said there “are enough resources in the state” to wipe the slate clean of every student who has debt and not charge them for meals, Giarratana said it will take a some time before Pennsylvanians see such a change in school lunches. funding.
“I don’t see this going anywhere in our state,” Giarratana said. “New Jersey has it in their budget to fund meals, but I don’t see us going to state funding. It’s all going to be local and regardless of district budgets.”