School district hires collections agency to go after families for unpaid lunches

A student at Fairmeadow Elementary School pays for lunch consisting of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, California.
A student at Fairmeadow Elementary School pays for lunch consisting of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program in Palo Alto, California. AP

A Rhode Island school district is taking extreme measures to make families pay students’ lunch debt: Cranston’s public schools hired a collections agency, NBC 10 News reports.

“In an effort to reduce our unpaid balance, the District has retained the services of a collection agency,” Raymond Votto Jr., chief operating officer of the city’s public schools, wrote in a recent letter to parents, according to NBC 10. “The company is Transworld Systems and they will begin their collection efforts effective January 2, 2019.”

School administrators said that from September 2016 to the end of June 2018, the school district lost $95,508 from unpaid lunches, the Providence Journal reports. For this academic year, the unpaid balance has already hit $45,859, the letter said.

“The District lunch program cannot continue to lose revenue,” Votto wrote in the letter, WPRI reports.

The collections agency will go after families who owe more than $20 if they fail to settle their lunch debts within two months, NBC 10 reports.

Students won’t be denied lunch if they don’t have cash. Lunch is $2.50 at elementary schools and $3.25 at middle and high schools, NBC reports.

“Obviously we continue to feed our kids no matter what the balances are,” Votto said, adding that parents get a notice when their child eats five times with no money in his or her lunch account, according to the Providence Journal.

Cranston public schools said the collections company will be mailing and not calling parents about the debts, so the process is less harsh, NBC 10 reports.

Across the U.S., schools have tried unusual — and sometimes controversial — methods to get families to pay down lunch debts.

A school in St. Paul, Minnesota, launched a GoFundMe account last month to raise money for children who can’t afford lunch and have unpaid balances.

“Beginning next week, students with a negative lunch balance will be served cheese sandwiches for lunch. It is our passion and goal to avoid the social stigma and nutritional impacts of this alternative lunch practice,” the fundraising page said. “Would you partner with us to meet this need for our students?”

Other schools have taken more drastic measures, like pitching entire meals in the garbage after discovering a child has unpaid lunches, the New York Times reported in a story on “lunch shaming” last year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in a 2014 report that nearly half of all schools shame kids in some way when they have lunch debts.

A law passed in California in 2017 bans “lunch shaming” in the state. New Mexico has a similar law.

“When you’re treated differently as a child in school, it’s shameful,” California state Sen. Bob Hertzberg said last year, announcing his anti-lunch shaming legislation had become law. “And in this case, the child is being harmed as a tool to collect their parent’s debt. That makes no senses whatsoever.”

West High School students eat lunch at several Wichita elementary schools to make sure no one eats alone.

Related stories from Miami Herald