Written by Milt Miller – Unpaid school lunch accounts appear to be becoming the new school food crisis. Of late, everywhere I turn I see articles about the severity of unpaid lunch accounts in schools. How has this happened, and why was it allowed to happen, and what can we do about it, appear to be the major questions asked by school administrators and board of education members nationwide. The answers to these questions are; there have always been unpaid lunch accounts, they have been allowed to grow due to a reactive rather than a proactive approach to controlling them, and through a lack of clear charge policies. They can be controlled by developing clear charge policies and using the appropriate technology to be proactive in handling them.
Most schools make the same mistakes on controlling unpaid lunch accounts nationwide. They have no clearly communicated, state approved, realistic charge policies in place from the start. They have no standard operating procedures in place to proactively ensure that lunch accounts are kept up to date, as much as possible. They also fail to realize that there will always be some unpaid lunch accounts unless a hard line approach is adopted, and even then there will always be some bad debt. Here are some basics for controlling unpaid lunch accounts.
As more and more families become eligible for Free and Reduced Meals better recordkeeping is necessary. The largest creator of unpaid lunch accounts is the time between the expiration of last year’s benefits and the submission and approval of this year’s Free and Reduced Meal Application. The thirty (30) day overlap period from last school year’s entitlements and this year’s application submission is key to controlling unpaid accounts. With today’s technology when last year’s benefits expire and no application is submitted the student is immediately moved to the paid category and the meter starts running up unpaid lunch bills. Sending a notice that the child owes money will get you an application submitted but you will never see the money for the interim period! Be proactive run reports on expiring applications and contact parents before their entitlements run out. Run these report weekly from the end of the first week of classes until the thirtieth day of school and keep contacting parents to inform them they are about to lose their meal benefits. Involve your building principal, after all it effects their Title 1 moneys.
Set clear, state and board approved charge policies that follow the national guidelines for charged meals. This policy is hard for schools to find, being called “The Lost, Stolen, or Misused Ticket Policy”, with ticket meaning any form in which a school meal is paid for. Its actual name is, “FNS Instruction 765-7 to Section 245.8 of the National School Lunch Act.” This policy can keep schools from setting charge limits too high making it harder to collect larger unpaid accounts. It also provides you with a hard fast set of reference points to show to your board and administrators. If this policy is followed state approval is a definite. Once this policy is adopted it must be clearly communicated to all parents, students and employees. It also should be posted in all public areas of all schools and in a prominent place in each café’. All employees should be trained how to appropriately enforce this policy. Too many times school administrators end up on the wrong end of bad press, due to a lack of clear communication of the school charge policy and the lack of clear concise training on how to enforce it.
The proper handling of the two above mentioned keys to controlling unpaid lunch accounts will greatly decrease them in a relatively short time and provide a proactive rather than a reactive approach to controlling them. Give them a try and you will be pleased with the results.
Milt Miller is the Principal and Chief Innovator at Milton Miller Consulting. 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.miltonmillerconsultant.com.