LACONIA — Around the nation there have been reports of school districts “shaming” students into having their parents pay off overdue hot lunch bills.
Shaming policies have been known to include denying students lunch, making them eat an alternative meal, or stamping their hands with a notice saying that they owed the school money. However, in the Laconia School District thanks to the efficient strategy in place and help from local philanthropy, there is no “shaming”, according to Tim Goossens, Director of Food Service.
The presence of negative lunch account balances in school districts has been around for decades and is not a new issue for the Laconia. Although Laconia is a smaller district, with only five schools providing daily lunches, the debt has risen in the past to nearly $10,000. In recent years though the estimated debt has lowered significantly, averaging around $2,000-$2,500 weekly, according to Goossens.
To tackle accounts that have gone into the rear, the district takes an active behind-the-scenes approach with the parents. “We try not to get the kids involved,” said Goossens. “Clearly, it’s not the child’s issue, fault or concern in any way. We try and do everything we can to resolve the issue with the parents.”
The process of contacting parents begins before the account even goes into the red, as all parents receive a notification when their account begins to get low on money. Following these initial notifications, parents also receive an email through the mealtime account when the student has dipped below even. These preliminary notices allow parents to send a check into school with a student or pay off the balance online before it becomes a significant amount.
If a parent does not address the account balance immediately after it dips into the red, the district will then send a letter home requesting funds to pay off the account and will review whether the student is supposed to be on a free or reduced-price lunch plan. Additional phone calls may be made to the home if the debt continues over a notable time.
“It’s a long process, where parents have many opportunities to communicate with us,” said Goosens. “We just need a parent to explain the situation to us and we will be able to accommodate with the family depending on each situation.”
Possible accommodations include allowing a student to bring in the money in incrementally, or pay for each individual lunch daily, even when there is an outstanding balance. In some cases, where there is an unexpected financial setback, the account does not need to be addressed at all until a specific time that the district and parent agrees upon.
“We work with the families and there is never a situation where I will tell a kid that they can’t get lunch,” said Laura Friend, director of Food Service at Pleasant Street School. She went on to state that in situations involing negative balances she may need to discretely deny a child getting “extras” that are not part of the set hot lunch provided, but she never denies a student from getting the standard hot lunch.
Outside organizations and citizens also help to alleviate the presence of school lunch debt. The non-profit Lakes Region Santa Fund, for example, sets aside a pool of money annually that can be used to pay for a week of lunches if the account gets to a certain negative amount, according to Friend.
Another solution comes in the form of donations from local philanthropists. Just this past school year, an anonymous donor came to the SAU office and offered to pay off the outstanding balances for 14 students in the district who had individually collected the most debt. Donations toward eliminating the school lunch debt are always welcome, according to Goossens, who further stated that anyone wishing to make a donation can contact the SAU office directly.