A three-year-old school meal policy sent fresh shock through parents last week, as many learned that they could be reported to the Department of Health and Welfare for unpaid bills.
Public response was strong enough to prompt a letter from the district office clarifying Policy 771, which governs so-called “student nutrition accounts,” a debit system that parents can use to pre-load money onto a card for their children to buy meals.
That policy states that parents will be notified if a balance dips negative, after which they’ll have five days to either pay it, make arrangements to do so in the future or apply for the federal free and reduced lunch program. If they don’t take any of those steps, the school principal “may notify the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, if appropriate.”
Director of Communications Heather Crocker said she isn’t aware of that having happened during her time at the district.
“It’s not part of our normal routine,” Crocker said.
In accordance with Idaho law, the School District will contact Health and Welfare if staff believe a child’s safety is at risk, Crocker said, but that hasn’t occurred in the context of the food policy.
Per the terms of the federal free and reduced lunch program, the School District is required by law to share its food service policy annually. In the past, they’ve sent it alongside the application for that program. This year, the email simply instructed parents to review the policy, with attachments in both English and Spanish.
“It lacked context,” Crocker said. “It was definitely not our intention to cause concern.”
Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes apologized for the confusion in a separate email sent to all parents on Friday.
“All students will continue to receive a balanced meal for breakfast and lunch regardless of the balance on their family’s account,” she wrote.
A similar policy made national headlines earlier this year when a Pennsylvania district threatened to put children in foster care over unpaid bills. In July, the Wyoming Valley West School District sent letters to about 1,000 parents claiming that balances could land them in court, the Associated Press reported at the time.
“You can be sent to dependency court for neglecting your child’s right to food. The result may be your child being taken from your home and placed in foster care,” the letter read.
Luzerne County, where the district operates, rebuked the claim, and Wyoming Valley West de-escalated its language in a subsequent letter.
In Idaho, policies vary. Many districts ranging in size from Camas and Lincoln counties to West Ada make no mention of charge accounts at all. Others reserve the right to deny meals to students who slip into debt. In the McCall-Donnelly District, for instance, elementary-schoolers have one week to rectify the balance; middle- and high-schoolers have one day. Twin Falls’ policy treats a bill more than 50 days old as a bad debt, and will use collections agencies and small-claims court to settle the charge.
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, required schools to have plans for students who can’t pay for meals. While the USDA pays the cost of free and reduced-price lunches, it won’t pay a student’s debt. That’s up to the individual school district—usually falling on its general operating fund.
Here, school social workers are usually the first to reach out to parents when concerns over payment arise, Crocker said.
Their first preference is to enroll a student in the free and reduced-price program. To do it, parents apply by reporting their income to the district’s free and reduced determining official—in Blaine County, that’s Administrative Assistant Karen Hoffman—who evaluates eligibility. The income limits vary by the size of the household applying. In 2019, a kid in a family of four earning less than $47,638 annually qualifies for reduced meal prices—between 30 and 40 cents—while those earning less than $33,475 get them free.