Two weeks ago, it was big news when a Salt Lake City school took lunches away from students when their card was declined at the register. (Students at many schools use a card to buy lunches, and parents are responsible for depositing money to the student’s lunch card account through the school’s website.)
It turns out that many Minnesota schools do the same thing. According to the StarTribune:
A majority of public school districts in this state deny hot lunch — or any lunch at all in some cases — to children who can’t pay for them. Some schools take the meals from students in the lunch line and dump them in the trash when the computer shows a deficit in their lunch accounts.
This information comes from a study published by Minnesota Legal Aid. Some schools (like Minneapolis Public Schools) provide a hot lunch regardless whether a student can pay. Others give students a cheese sandwich instead. In some districts, the cheese sandwich is just temporary. At Marshall public schools, “the student will continue to receive sandwiches, but their parents may be referred to a collection agency and social services ‘for possible neglect.'”
Obviously, taking lunches away from students and tossing them (the lunches, that is) in the trash is a terrible solution. It embarrasses the students, who are not the source of the problem, and it is a waste of food. But as long as schools have to charge for hot lunches, there does need to be a way for them to stop serving lunch to students who have not paid for it.
Otherwise, there are two options. The good option is for the state to just absorb the cost of serving hot lunches. I don’t pretend to understand all the political hurdles involved in making that happen, but I am sure it would be expensive and involve lots of frustrating discussions about taxes.
The bad option is the Marshall public schools option: referring students’ accounts to a collection agency.
Whatever the reason a student’s parents have not paid into a lunch account, sending a collector after them is a lose-lose proposition. Even in the best-case scenario, the school will get back only a fraction of the amount owed after the collector subtracts its cut of whatever it manages to recover.
And we are talking about relatively small amounts in the first place; at $2.40 per lunch, a student with no absences would rack up $422.40 in lunches for the entire school year). The parent, on the other hand, would incur interest and, if the collector sues (which many do even for small amounts), it may be able to add on hundreds or thousands of dollars in attorney fees and court costs. The collection industry is interested in maximizing revenue for collectors, after all, not so much in recovering legitimate debts for creditors.
That means the school will not be made whole, and the parents will be much worse off. That may feel well-deserved if the parent is well-off but negligent. But it is probably safe to assume the opposite; parents who are not keeping their children’s lunch accounts topped up are probably not well off. Sending their accounts to collection just compounds their money problems, which may ultimately force them to rely on government benefits.
Money that winds up in a debt collector’s pocket does not improve anything but the debt collector’s bottom line at the expense of schools and public benefit programs. It does not restore the schools’ losses. It makes it harder for students to afford school lunches. And it probably increases reliance on government benefits.
We need a solution that keeps children healthy without hurting their families or increasing reliance on government benefits.
Embarrassing students and wasting food is bad. But sending students’ lunch accounts to debt collectors is worse. I imagine legislators are rushing to propose fixes. Hopefully, they will avoid fixes that just paper over the problem and compound it in the process.