REGIONAL — Thousands of kids depend on prepared meals they’re served five days a week, nine months out of the year in school cafeterias across the region.

It’s a service important to many families, but one that can cause school districts to shoulder unpaid meal account debts.

“We always have unpaid debt,” said Independent School District 518 Business Manager Dave Skog about outstanding balances that are inevitable at the end of each school year.

How that debt is handled depends on each district.

Skog said there are many cases in which unpaid balances may just be an oversight, and parents pay off any unpaid balance at the start of the next school year.

However, there are accounts with unpaid debt that the district considers non-collectible. Those are typically those of students who have moved out of the district or graduated.

With approval from the board of education, the district recently wrote off $978.85 in student meal debt. The write-off was from the general fund.

According to District Food Service Director DeeAnn Crall, approximately $500 is typically what the district writes off annually. It was greater this year due to, in part, one account that had amassed more than $500 in debt. The district is still trying to collect payment from that account.

While a nearly $1,000 write off is not ideal, it’s no comparison to summer 2017, when the district wrote off $15,000 to $16,000 in food service debt.

It’s gotten more manageable, Skog said, since the district made the decision to get that debt cleared off its books.

Collections or small claims court are options, but that can be expensive, too, he said.

Lunch now costs $2.25 at Worthington Middle School and Worthington High School, and breakfast is $1.25. Lunch at Prairie Elementary is $2.10, and breakfast is $1.

Unpaid balances aren’t due to lack of effort taken by area districts.

At Worthington, when a meal account balance gets low, parents or guardians get a phone call reminder. When that account hits negative $5, the call is made every day.

“To some people it’s just an irritant, so they pay their bill,” Skog said. “To some, it’s that they didn’t know and get it taken care of.”

When the debt becomes negative $50, a letter is sent home stating a payment needs to be made within a week or their student will receive a sack lunch. A phone call is made the day before a sack lunch is distributed. The alternative lunches are not served at Prairie Elementary, per school board policy.

In Windom, parents or guardians of students who hit a meal balance less than $20 begin receiving emails and automated phone messages. If the balance becomes -$20, a letter is also sent out, along with another opportunity to apply for free and reduced meals. At this point, students receive a SunButter or cheese sandwich and milk for up to 10 days.

If the account continues to be unpaid, parents are notified to send a sack lunch and beverage for their child. If a student isn’t eating due to inability to pay, a building administrator or social worker will investigate the situation.

“We work hard to ensure that students are held harmless due to parents’ responsibility for food service balances,” said Windom Superintendent Wayne Wormstadt.

According to Wormstadt, the district carries negative student meal balances through the student’s years. They don’t turn to collections or small claims court.

If a student is approved for free and reduced funding, the district carries their old balance on their account, but don’t pursue collecting payment.

Free and reduced

There’s funding available to help qualifying individuals

The income-based qualifications are not widely public to help eliminate false applications. Because of that, District 518 encourages all families to fill out an application.

Applications are available and may be returned at any time throughout the school year. District 518 food service staff will be at upcoming building open houses to answer questions and assist with applications.

According to Skog, “free and reduced” is actually completely free for qualifying families in Minnesota. The state, he added, picks up the remaining balance of qualifying “reduced” meal prices.

Individuals of households receiving food stamps are automatically qualified for free and reduced meals.

Some districts also have funds established for individuals to donate to student meal accounts that could use assistance.

At District 518, it’s called an Angel Fund, which kicks in after about three weeks of accumulating debt beyond -$50.

“We can’t know the situation, but things change and people struggle at different times,” Skog said of the value of the donated funds.

Adrian began Adrian Kids: Food for Thought last winter after a local couple donated initial funds for the program. It’s overseen by school counselors and administrators who have knowledge of student needs.

Of applications returned, 70% of District 518 students qualify for free meals; 44% at Windom; and 40% at Adrian.