This year, many northern Michigan schools forecast student lunch debt, and without regulation from government to collect those dues, districts have to figure it out on their own.
School lunch debt has increased in recent years to the point where the median amount each district carries is just over $3,000, according to the School Nutrition Association — a professional organization that monitors lunches at schools.
Scott Little is the executive director of the association, and he says lunch debt in the thousands can hurt smaller school districts in northern Michigan.
“The district is not allowed to use federal USDA dollars to pay that debt down,” Little says. “So the district is going to have to figure out where else that money is going to come from. That’s going to come from their general fund. That’s money they didn’t budget, I’m sure, that now they would have to put towards their meal program.”
In the last two years, Suttons Bay High School accumulated about $3,000 of debt from families who didn’t pay for lunches. Last month, Mitten Brewing Company paid off the debt.
Suttons Bay Public Schools Superintendent Tim Smith says paying for school lunches is a challenge for some families in his district. He says he struggles to pay for lunch for his five children.
“So you’re talking about $150 a week to feed your kids lunch and breakfast,” Smith says. “Some people don’t have that luxury to go to the grocery store. They just get in a hole and it’s hard to get out of the hole, you know?”
Over the past two years, more school districts in the region have quietly worked with donors to pay students’ debt accounts.
This year, in Manistee County, local businesses are working to clear $11,000 of lunch money owed.
Additionally, Traverse City Area Public Schools had their $4,000 of lunch debt paid off last year by local donors.
Other districts work out payment plans with parents who are overdue on lunch money. Ludington Public Schools hired a food services position, that mainly looks after the accounts with debt.
Some schools that had debt problems, like Northport and Mancelona, now get free breakfasts and lunches for the entire school, thanks to special state funding.
But that’s only reserved for districts where 40 to 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced meals.
In all the districts, the schools agree that no child will go without a meal.