School lunch counter, Ottumwa High School, May 2018

In this file photo from May of 2018, staff at Ottumwa High School prepare school lunches. School districts across the state are addressing deficits in student lunch accounts, according to the Iowa Dept. of Education.

CLINTON – Collecting money to pay for school lunches has become a losing battle in many school districts across the state. In the Clinton Community School District, the deficit is nearing $80,000.

“Delinquent lunch accounts amount to about $78,000 as of June 30, 2019,” Cindy McAleer, Clinton Community School District chief financial officer, said this month.

That was more than 5% of the district’s $1.38 million Nutrition Fund balance.

At the end of fiscal year 2015, lunch accounts in the district were delinquent by $37,900, McAleer said. The unpaid amount rose to $50,650 by the end of fiscal year 2016, hit $66,192 at the end of fiscal year 2017 and increased to $71,900 by the end of fiscal year 2018.

The district began a collection process a couple of years ago to try to recoup some of the money, McAleer said. “Some of it we had to write off. Some families had to file bankruptcy.”

Increases since 2017 have been in the thousands of dollars rather than tens of thousands, “So it’s not increasing as much as it was,” McAleer said.

The district also began using an automated system that alerts parents when lunch accounts are in arrears rather than relying on students to take letters home to their parents. “So maybe that’s been more effective as well,” McAleer said.

The State has put more emphasis on balancing the accounts, McAleer said. “We have now an option of creating a flex fund, … but that’s money that we’re receiving for special development.” The district hasn’t used that option because it believes that money should be used for curriculum and resources for the students, McAleer said.

District Superintendent Gary DeLacy described the option as “taking money from all kids to pay for parents who aren’t paying their obligations.”

Student lunch accounts are paid in advance to the nutrition fund, McAleer said. The nutrition fund is not in the red, she said. Only individual lunch accounts are. The nutrition fund had a balance of almost $1.42 million at the end of October.

Food Services Director Jeff Weaver is frugal with the district’s money, McAleer said. “He does a lot of repairs himself. [He’s] very good at monitoring his account.”

The State has prohibited “lunch shaming,” McAleer said, “which we agree with totally. We will not deny anyone a lunch, [but] we do not allow them to buy a la carte if they have a negative balance.”

Parents prepay for lunches through individual student accounts, said Weaver, and students use a personal identification number or a card access the money in their accounts.

If students’ accounts don’t have enough money in them, “We just let them have the lunch,” Weaver said. “It will show up as a negative on their account.

“We allow them to have whatever the reimbursement is as long as it’s not an a la carte-based lunch,” Weaver said. “We don’t take lunches away. We don’t tell them what their negative balance is.”

The automated system will inform parents of the negative balances, Weaver said, and parents are responsible to add money to the accounts.

The food service department sends forms to parents of students who may qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. “We will gladly help any family that feels they qualify,” McAleer said. Families should contact the district office or the food service department to apply for financial help for school lunches.

The district has accepted donations from people who want to help families pay for school lunches, McAleer said, but the district can’t take donations for specific students. “We usually have them identify a school and maybe a grade ... because we can’t pick and choose who we give to.”

“Obviously there’s been a lot of publicity in the last couple of years about how lunch shaming has become a term,” said DeLacy. By law, “you can’t take lunch out of a kid’s hands,” but the district does have some legal recourse.

“We have 61% of our elementary students qualify for free lunch, up to 69% is free or reduced. So there is a mechanism in place ... if they qualify,” DeLacy said.

One reason for delinquent accounts, according to DeLacy, is that families who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches don’t fill out their paperwork on time. “The federal government is very rigorous with those timelines,” he said.

“The rest of it is families that the federal government deems they’re making enough money to pay, and they’re not.”

The district has sent letters to parents and has hired a collection agency to try to recover some of the money, DeLacy said. “We feel like we’re kind of in quicksand in terms of how to address the problem.”

Camanche Community School District is also seeing negative school lunch balances, but not on the same scale as Clinton. Camanche has fewer than 1,000 students in kindergarten through 12 grades while Clinton serves more than 3,300.

“Our current deficit is $2,324,” said District Superintendent Tom Parker. “It tends to fluctuate some, but we are starting to see a pattern where it is increasing.”

The deficit amounts to about 1% of the Camanche nutrition fund’s October 31 balance of $211,987.

“It is something we are active in addressing,” Parker said.

When a student’s balance drops below $6, the Camanche school district sends a notice to the family. “Once there is a negative amount, we will send a letter or a phone call is made from the building,” Parker said.

The reasons for non-payment are varied, Parker said. “When we do find this type of pattern developing, we do reach out to the family to see if they do qualify for free or reduced lunch, and in some cases that does help to solve the problem.”

Staci Hupp of the Iowa Dept. of Education said the department gave schools in the state some guidance after the Iowa Legislature adopted House File 2467 which authorized transfer of money from other funds, allows income setoff of some debts and mandated that schools provide parents and guardians with information about free and reduced-fee meals.

The guidance document reiterates that schools must inform parents about free and reduced-price lunches and should provide a meal to the students even if they have negative balances. It notes that schools may not do anything that will publicly identify students who owe money or do anything to stigmatize the students.

The district may establish an unpaid student meals account and accept deposits from private donations, the Dept. of Education said.

“We actually don’t collect data on student meal debt,” Hupp said. “We don’t collect that from schools.” But the problem is widespread, she said.