HARRISONBURG — It’s a problem facing school divisions across the state, but for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, the issue of families not paying for lunches is growing.
It’s a complicated issue, and there are a number of reasons students show up to school without money to pay for lunch. It’s the school division’s commitment to making sure everyone gets a lunch and they did away with “alternative meals” years ago, because they felt it was a way of shaming students, said Andrea Early, executive director of school nutrition.
Currently, the school division has an unpaid lunch balance of $42,063.49. Of that amount, $7,326 was from accounts for students who, eventually during the year, qualified for free lunch. And $4,104 was on accounts that eventually became reduced. But the majority, $30,627, was from full-priced meals.
Lunch debt has always been an issue, but the amount doubled at the high school level this year and there is one change that is likely the reason, Early said.
New legislation that keeps school employees from discussing lunch debt with all students has compounded the problem.
A meal charge is defined as a short-term loan for a student to eat because they have forgotten or lost money for that day.
Prior to this school year, cafeteria staff at the high school level would inform students when they started to dip into the negative.
“We’re in the business of customer service, so our cashiers know how to talk to students without shaming them,” Early said. Often, students were just unaware that the balance on their account was getting low.
Now, school divisions have to deal strictly with families, which they were doing before through letters home and automated calls.
A final letter went out to families recently, so payments are still coming in, Early said.
Although $42,063 is a high amount, it doesn’t have too much of an impact on the school division’s $4 million budget and hasn’t impacted the quality of the food, Early said.
The school is hoping to add a text feature to their automated system that alerts parents to their students’ debt, which Early hopes will be a more efficient way of reaching out to families.
Rockingham County Public Schools has a meal debt of nearly $24,600, which has accumulated over the course of multiple years, not just this past school year, said Gerald Lehman, supervisor of nutrition services in a previous interview. That’s about $2 for every student in the school division. Although there are only 1,069 students with outstanding lunch debt.