School District Steps Up Collection Efforts as Delinquent Meal Accounts Skyrocket

school lunch
USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

Lunch accounts in the red could be turned over to a debt collector if parents ignore outreach from the Washoe County School District and repeated requests for payment, school trustees decided Tuesday.

There are currently 5,033 students with negative balances and the problem is getting worse, district chief operating officer Pete Etchart said.

Delinquent meal accounts went from $29,623 during the 2015-16 school year to $66,760 during 2016-17. As of Feb. 23, delinquent accounts for 2017-18 have reached $95,134. Debt is classified as delinquent when balances are considered collectable and recovery efforts are being made.

Unpaid balances from the 2016-17 school year were nearly four times the average total of unpaid balances reported from districts that limit charges, a report to trustees said.

Overdue accounts garnered attention when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) instructed the district in 2016 to develop a meal charge policy.

The district has been writing off unpaid lunch accounts as operating loses that are absorbed by its general fund. Such loses can’t be absorbed by the nonprofit school food service account and must be reimbursed from a non-federal source of funds.

“It’s not something principals or the front office staff should be focusing on,” said David Lasic, district chief of staff. “Without parental accountability, this problem will continue to grow.”

Donations to help defray costs came in from the community but were minimal and would-be grants or charitable donations fell through once it became clear that such dollars wouldn’t be helping needy children.

“Schools that have owed the most are not schools where the majority of students are hungry,” Etchart said. “We’re not talking about our most at-risk students. There are parents who can pay for their kids lunches and they choose not to.”

Weekly invoices, options for payment plans, and forms for free and reduced-price meals are sent home to those with negative accounts but largely go ignored, district staff said.

Parents who’ve been unresponsive can expect a tiered accountability system to trigger. This includes phone calls from the district. If unresponsiveness continues, a counselor or social worker will become involved, citing student well-being as a top priority. If charges remain unpaid but communication was established intending repayment, in-house collections will continue. If no indication of repayment has been established, accounts would be turned over to a professional debt collection agency contracted out by the Nevada State Controller.

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Malena Raymond
Malena Raymond

Trustee Malena Raymond said each family’s situation should be evaluated before accounts are turned over to a debt collector. There’s a difference between a family who falls just short of federal income eligibility and is struggling versus another who ignores their debt, she said

“If a family can pay, they’ll pay (if they know their account is going to collections),” Raymond said.

A board policy on how to handle unpaid meal accounts will be drafted and brought back to trustees for a vote this spring.

Current District Policy

Students can pay for meals with cash or their parents can send in checks or pre-pay online for meals at MySchoolBucks. Those opting for online payment can monitor their children’s purchase activity and get notifications when balances are low.

Elementary and secondary school breakfasts cost $1.75. Lunch is $2.70 in elementary schools and $2.95 in secondary schools.

About 45 percent of students countywide receive free meals and schools with high populations of needy students are diligent at getting meal applications completed early because it affects Title I funding, Etchart said.

Across Nevada, about 295,000 meals are served daily in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, feeding meals to hungry children so they are better able to learn.
Across Nevada, about 295,000 meals are served daily in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, feeding meals to hungry children so they are better able to learn.

All children in households receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—along with foster children who are under the legal responsibility of a foster care agency or court—are eligible for free meals regardless of income. Those with household incomes that meet federal income eligibility guidelines are also eligible.

Bringing lunch from home, often referred to as “cold lunch,” is an option, too.

Elementary school students who don’t bring a home lunch and have a negative balance can charge a USDA meal but cannot charge a la carte or extra items.

“Unpaid meal charges can be mitigated by enforcing parental accountability, providing the district with options to reduce the mounting meal debt,” a report to trustees said. “Currently, the district allows no-limit negative charging at the elementary school level and does not enforce parental accountability for unpaid meal balances. Benchmarking research and responses revealed that the majority of similarly-populated school districts limit negative charges at the elementary school level and impose tiered parental consequences for failures to pay.”

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Middle and high school students in the same situation don’t receive a meal but parents are encouraged to explore payment options and to speak with administrators about solutions.

No Easy Answer

The district sought feedback from school administrators on the topic, many who said themselves and their staffs are already making phone calls. However, several said finding time to make parental contact about lunch accounts on top of existing responsibilities is challenging and often results in little fruition.

“It’s not something principals or the front office staff should be focusing on,” said David Lasic, district chief of staff. “Without parental accountability, this problem will continue to grow.”

Washoe County School District's Pete Etchart. Photo: Bob Conrad.
Washoe County School District’s Pete Etchart. Photo: Bob Conrad.

Additionally, Etchart said schools can’t use volunteers to make phone calls because of privacy reasons.

A few administrators cited reasons for overdue accounts that include a free or reduced-price meal applications lapsing. Such applications don’t automatically roll over and need to be completed annually. Names of such students are kept confidential.

Nevertheless, many schools with delinquent accounts have very few students eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Administrators said getting parents to clear their debt has become more difficult since it was made public last year that meals wouldn’t be denied and that student report cards couldn’t be held due to unpaid fees.

For example:

  • “I make personal phone calls when time permits, but many parents just think it’s the school’s (or district’s) responsibility to pay for their child’s lunch. I never want to see a child go hungry but I also don’t like being taken advantage of and that’s how it feels.”
  • “A couple of the families always have the best clothes, etc. and don’t pay their bill… we are at a loss. A few of our worst offenders are actually parents that are employees of our district, they know that they can get away without paying.”
  • “With current policies, this debt will rise. We take a lot of time to call parents and remind them of the balance, and they also know we will feed their students for free no matter what. It seems to be a losing battle. We would never shame the kids, and I also feel we are teaching them and allowing parents to work this broken system we have.”
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While nobody mentioned children shouldn’t eat, some suggested an alternative meal might draw attention of parents and up the ante. Another suggestion was to send a note home with children who have overdue accounts asking their parents to pack them a cold lunch until their balance is paid.

School district staff last spring suggested serving elementary students a cheese sandwich, milk, and vegetable or fruit if they had overdue accounts. However, backlash from the community prompted reconsideration as naysayers suggested giving students the same lunch as their peers might protect them from embarrassment.

The district last May then announced it wouldn’t badger parents into paying, although correspondence about overdue accounts would continue.

Etchart said alternative meals would be difficult because cafeteria staffs have no way of knowing which children have overdrawn accounts until a “point of sale” comes through after all students get their meals and exit the line. Moving the point of sale to the front of the line would be more challenging and require additional staff, he said.

“We don’t know a way to implement this and meet our goals for nutrition services,” Etchart said. “Some parents aren’t paying because they’ve heard others aren’t paying and getting away with it.”

Etchart said collections are the way to go because all other options impact the students, not their parents.

On The Web:

Eligibility requirements for free/reduced meals:

Meal benefit application:


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Carla O'Day
About Carla O'Day 468 Articles
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.

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