Isle of Wight County schools report growing ‘lunch debt’

Published 10:20 am Monday, January 21, 2019

Students attending Isle of Wight County public schools who could not afford to pay for lunch in their  respective school cafeterias, but were still provided with a meal, have racked up tens of thousands of dollars in “lunch debt” this school year.

During the School Board’s Jan. 10 meeting, Rachel Yates, Isle of Wight County Schools’ executive director of budget and finance, reported that as of June 30, 2018 — the end of the 2017-2018 school year — Isle of Wight County Schools had a cafeteria fund deficit of over $41,000. By Dec. 31, 2018 — just four months into the 2018-2019 school year — this figure had risen to over $72,000.

While this figure isn’t entirely from lunch debt, Lynn Briggs, Isle of Wight County Schools’ director of community and media relations, explained that the total cafeteria deficit for the current fiscal year and the total lunch debt, which spans multiple fiscal years, are very similar.

At the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton called the division’s growing lunch debt part of a “national crisis.” A Dec. 28, 2018, article by The Washington Post confirms that the issue does indeed span far beyond Isle of Wight County.

That article states, “In some cases, students who cannot pay for lunch are denied hot food and handed a cheese sandwich, according to policy  in numerous school districts across the country…. Lawmakers and anti-poverty activists have dubbed this practice ‘lunch shaming,’ because other students notice what’s going on.”

However, this is not the policy at Isle of Wight County Schools. School Board Policy JHCH states that students who cannot pay for a meal at school or who carry a balance will not be required to do chores or other work to pay for said meal or wear a wristband or hand stamp, and further mandates that these children are not to be denied a meal.

“No one wants to deny a child a meal, and we’re not going to do alternate meals,” Thornton said.

The language regarding chores, wristbands and hand stamps stems from House Bill 50, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed into law in March 2018. The law requires each local school board to add such language to their meals policies. Isle of Wight’s School Board approved the language changes unanimously at the meeting.

Briggs also confirmed that the division’s difficulties with unpaid lunch debts only apply to students who are not eligible – or at least whose parents have not filled out the eligibility paperwork – to receive free or reduced-price lunches. As of Dec. 31, 2018, 32.98 percent of Isle of Wight County Schools’ student body had been approved for free or reduced-price meal benefits. For those not eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a standard meal costs $2.45 at the elementary school level and $2.65 at the middle and high school level in Isle of Wight County.

“I wonder if we have families that qualify for free or reduced lunch who fail to fill out the forms,” said Jackie Carr, who represents the Carrsville District on the School Board. “If parents are not taking advantage of this, we need to make sure they know this is available, and help them with the paperwork.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, a household of three residing in the continental United States or Guam and other U.S. territories must earn $38,443 or less annually to qualify for reduced-price lunches during the 2018-2019 school year. To qualify for free lunches, a family of three must earn $27,014 or less annually. Alaska and Hawaii have different income standards.

One place that appears to be less affected by the growing student lunch debt crisis is Southampton County, which borders Isle of Wight along the Blackwater River. According to Cheryl Bowers, who served as food services supervisor to Southampton County Public Schools through Jan. 14 of this year, there was no cafeteria fund deficit at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, nor is there one currently. While there are Southampton students with past due accounts, Bowers could not estimate exactly how many total students owed money.

“We monitor accounts on a regular basis and contact parents to ensure they are aware of the debt owed,” Bowers said.

In Southampton County, elementary school lunches are $2.35, while middle and high school lunches are $2.45. Bowers added that just over 50 percent of Southampton’s students are receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Of the students who owe money, there are more at the middle and high school level than the elementary level.

To date, Isle of Wight County Schools’ only efforts to collect unpaid lunch debts have involved contacting parents by sending them letters and/or making phone calls. However, additional language added to Policy JHCH now states that schools must run reports at the end of each month to identify students carrying any outstanding balances, and that parents of children carrying a balance of $10 or more be notified that their child will be unable to participate in certain school activities until the balance is paid.

Such activities include school-sponsored dances or events in which students are required to pay, such as the 5K race; competitive events in which students are required to pay, such as Junior Beta Club; school pictures, sports, band or debate teams. At the high school level, students with unpaid balances greater than $10 will also be denied the privilege of taking home their school-issued laptop or iPad, parking passes and participation in graduation. If the unpaid balance reaches $25 or more, the debt will be turned over to the superintendent or the superintendent’s designee for collection.

Thornton and Briggs said that the division also plans to work with the county government to determine what provisions are in place for debt collection on unpaid local taxes, and if any of those could be of use to the schools.