8 Steps to Lowering Unpaid Lunch Bills

Written by Milt Miller – As sure as death and taxes unpaid lunch bills will always exist in schools under the current systems. Of late these unpaid accounts are creating quite a stir in the media. Administrators are trying to get costs under control, but are looking like heartless uncaring individuals in the news. School food service professionals do care about feeding children first but also have to control costs in order to have a sustainable operation from which to feed them. Under the new guidelines schools that are at least 40% free lunch eligible based on direct certification may opt to employ the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) to allow all students, enrolled in their districts, a free breakfast and lunch.  

This program has some bugs involving state and federal funding issues, but many have been resolved and others are being worked on. For schools that this program applies too and benefits, it is a great opportunity. The potential for eliminating paperwork and unpaid account balances is fantastic. Schools that qualify should definitely examine adopting this program. What about schools that do not qualify? They are still subject to the same problems they have had in the past, expired benefits, due to families not submitting a new Free and Reduced Lunch Application, resulting in unpaid balances and interruption of services. Bad press for denying students a school lunch for excessively low account balances follows on the heels of this situation.

Schools that do not qualify for CEP or those not wanting to implement it for other reasons, can employ any or all of these eight (8) steps to potentially lower and better manage unpaid lunch bills.

  1. Obtain information from your current Free and Reduced Lunch software showing whose meal benefits will expire in mid-October each year. This report should be updated and generated weekly from the beginning of the school year until the week before the cut-off in October. This will allow you to track the progress of your program to get these applications in on time.
  2. Communicate to parents and school principals who will lose benefits from failure to submit a new application weekly. Letting parents know they will lose benefits will cause a greater return earlier. Letting principals know and get an opportunity to assist with the calling of parents protects their Title 1 monies as well as grant and aid levels determined by F&R percentages.
  3. Calls weekly increase the chance of higher returns. The more you or your principals remind parents, the better chance of higher returns and less loss of benefits.  
  4. Send Free and Reduced Applications home with the students in danger of losing meal benefits after each call. Things get lost or miss placed easily. The more you keep the issue in front of families in danger of losing benefits the more it helps you.
  5. Offer special evenings to review and assist with the filling out and submitting applications. You will be surprised how this helps. People who have trouble reading and writing often fail to submit applications for just that reason.
  6. Use single family multiple child forms, but set the parameters of your software to show all enrolled student with a common address and phone number. This allows you to peer match. Many times low income parents do not list all of their children enrolled in the district. This will allow you to include these students living in that household and not listed on the application.
  7. Meet with parents of all students in feeder systems such as Head Start to explain and assist with the application process.  As Ben Franklin said,An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If you work with increasing communication at registration you increase participation in the long run.
  8. Constant communication and persistence lead to success. Keeping the issue in front of everybody insures greater returns and lower unpaid bills.

We have employed this system in several school districts and have witnessed the results to be Free and Reduced percentages in the beginning of the year to be closer to those at the end of the year, lower loss of meal benefits for students, higher levels of grants and aid all year long, and lower unpaid bill totals. These eight (8) simple steps have worked wonders in the schools we have used them in.

Milt Miller is Director of K-12 Operations at Food Service Solutions, Inc. Throughout his 32 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.