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School Nutrition Professionals Call on Congress & USDA to Provide Guidance on Growing Unpaid School Meal Burden

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Contact: Diane Pratt-Heavner
301-686-3124 Ext.
media@schoolnutrition.org

School Nutrition Professionals Call on Congress & USDA to Provide Guidance on Growing Unpaid School Meal Burden

National Harbor, Md., March 5, 2012 – As rising costs and a tough economy squeeze the family pocketbook, school meal programs have witnessed an increase in the number of children who arrive in the school cafeteria without their lunch money. Currently, there is no federal policy for how schools respond to requests for “unpaid meals,” nor is there policy on managing those expenses when incurred.

School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) 40th annual Legislative Action Conference (LAC) is putting a spotlight on the problem. Over 900 school nutrition professionals gathered in Washington, D.C. for LAC are discussing the challenges schools face when the number of children who “charge” their school meals results in substantial unpaid meal debt.

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (P.L. 111-296), Congress required USDA to develop new nutrition standards that will increase the cost of preparing school meals. SNA is calling on Congress to require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish national regulations on how all schools must respond to requests for unpaid meals and how to manage the debt incurred by providing them to help ease the financial burden on school nutrition programs.

An SNA survey last month revealed that unpaid meal charges are a significant problem for school districts. With 964 school nutrition directors responding, the survey found that over half of districts surveyed (53%) are experiencing an increase in the number of students arriving in the cafeteria without money to pay for their meal. Fifty-six percent of the districts reporting an increase in students unable to pay anticipate the accumulated debt from unpaid meal charges will exceed last year’s debt. Of those expecting an increase in unpaid meal debt, 33% anticipate a “significant” increase in debt.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture affirms that school nutrition programs are not required to provide a complimentary meal to a child, which leaves local school districts to decide what to do for students who do not bring their lunch money.

Many school districts have been forced to create controversial “charge policies” governing whether (and what) their school cafeterias serve to students who do not bring their lunch money but do not qualify (or apply for) free school meals under the Free and Reduced Price program. Some schools allow these students to charge the cost of a meal, up to a certain amount, and then provide alternative meals, such as a cheese sandwich and milk or a fruit and vegetable plate, until parents pay the balanced owed. Other schools provide an alternative meal as soon as a student’s meal account reaches zero.

Schools employ a variety of strategies to collect debts owed, such as sending requests to parents for repayment by phone, email, or letter, or working with school principals to enforce repayment or even contracting collection agencies when necessary.

“School nutrition professionals want every child to have access to a healthy, well-balanced meal during the school day,” said SNA Chief Executive Officer Frank DiPasquale. “Unpaid meal charges and the debt they create has become a national problem for school nutrition programs—it is time for USDA to provide national guidance to help schools manage the problem.”

SNA’s request for federal policies on unpaid meal charges is part of the Association’s 2012 Legislative Issue Paper. As part of LAC’s “Charge to the Hill,” participants will meet with their representatives tomorrow to bring these issues to Congress’ attention.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA) is a national, non-profit professional organization representing 55,000 school nutrition professionals across the country. Founded in 1946, SNA and its members are dedicated to making healthy school meals and nutrition education available to all students. To find out more about today’s school meals, visit www.TrayTalk.org.

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