How is Your School Lunch Charge Policy?

Written by Milt Miller – July 1, 2017 was the deadline for all schools to establish and make public their procedures for when a student cannot pay for a school meal. This ruling was mandated by the USDA, who administers the National School Lunch Program and is enforced by State Departments of Education. There has been much anxiety over this mandate, as illustrated by the many articles of late in the news concerning meals being taken from children who cannot pay.

In my opinion, this is a good ruling, as it forces schools to inform parents of exactly what the procedure will be before a problem occurs with a child’s lunch. In the past school food programs were not good with informing parents of negative lunch balances or what happens if a balance reaches a certain negative level. The original federal policy required school boards and administrators to allow for three unpaid meals before providing and alternate meal or placing students on a cash only basis until their negative account was brought up to date. Schools nationwide have done a poor job with handling this policy. Many have let students charge meals without payment until the total was out of control and then they would stop service to students with negative balances. This caused major issues in the news over the last several years, as parents complained on social media and the complaints went viral.

Articles on “meal shaming” and taking food from unsuspecting students were all over national news stories. This gave school meal administrators a black eye as they looked like the villains, for taking food away from children. This created a “catch 22” situation for school lunch professionals, as they were not to take food from children, who couldn’t pay, but were not to allow bad debt to occur in their programs. This is hard to do, give food away but don’t lose money.

In an effort to get school food programs and school boards to tighten their negative lunch account policies, the USDA ruled that school food programs could not carry negative accounts forward and had to be made whole, at the end of each school year through the general fund. Still most school programs did little or nothing to improve the situation, but put more pressure on their managers and directors to eliminate bad debt. Still they set policies, but failed to take the appropriate steps to make procedures and policies public.

Communication and strong procedures are key to fighting bad debt. If parents are not kept informed of policies and procedures, shame on the school. Putting policies in writing and sending them home every year to parents in newsletters, publishing them on school websites, putting them in newspapers as public service announcements, and posting them in all public areas of the school district are key factors in eliminating bad debt and bad press. Most school districts have proper policies, they just fail to let their constituents know what they are and how they will be enforced. If my child had her food taken from her by a cafeteria worker and told she owed money and could no longer have a lunch, I would be irate also. Especially if I knew nothing about the policy or what the policy was. Communication is key.

Staff training is also a key ingredient in the recipe for eliminating negative lunch accounts. Taking a meal from a child in front of their peers and holding them responsible for something that is not their fault is wrong. It literally is “meal shaming.” Holding parents responsible for taking care of their child’s meals is not. Staff need to be trained to understand the proper ways of notifying parents or their administrators in such situations. These workers are not taking food away to be mean, they are following some procedure they have been directed to do. In most cases they are not trained how to properly handle the situation, by not embarrassing the student. In most cases the whole procedure is like a domino effect. The board complains that the food service program is losing money. The business manager tells the food service director that they must stop the bleeding. The director tells the employees that students at a certain level of bad debt can no longer charge meals. The employees take the meals from the students and tell them they can’t have lunch until they bring their account up to date. The student is upset and tells their parents. The parents call the school and post something on social media about the terrible experience their child had that day. The social media post goes viral. The school ends up with a black eye in the press and the cafeteria workers get the blame. “Lunch Shaming” at its finest. All because of poor communication and staff training.

I’m glad the USDA has finally stepped up and is forcing schools to develop and communicate policies in this area. This has been long overdue and is a good move in my opinion. It is a move that, hopefully will protect all involved, especially the student.

How is your charge policy? Now that you have met the guideline are you ready to implement? If you still have questions or need advice on training, I encourage you to reach out to me. I have worked with the set-up, implementation, and staff training on charge policies over the past ten years. We have helped schools develop and implement these procedures successfully. I would be happy to speak with you and assist in any way.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 33 years in the food service industry he has managed, operated and assisted food service programs to become successful. For more information on this and other topics, contact Milt at www.foodserve.com/school-food-program-assessment.html.

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