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Nevada school district proposes sending debt collectors to recoup unpaid school meal funds

The policy could "hurt parents who are truly struggling."

credit: getty images
credit: getty images

A school district in Nevada is considering using debt collectors to retrieve money from parents for unpaid school meals.

The Washoe County School District Chief Operations Officer Pete Etchart said debt collections are “the only thing that anyone could come up with,” the Reno Gazette Journal reported. According to the publication, the district is facing almost $90,000 in unpaid meal debt since the beginning of the school year, marking the 11th consecutive year that the district has had a budget deficit. Last year, the district had a record of $66,000 in unpaid meals.

About 44 percent of the district’s 64,000 students are part of the free and reduced lunch program, which allows students from families making less than $45,510 to receive a free lunch.

Etchart said those students wouldn’t be targeted by debt collectors and the majority of the debt is from families who can afford to pay, but it’s likely that low-income parents could still be impacted by the proposed policy.

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Part of the debt is from students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, but have not enrolled or whose applications have lapsed. Others may be slightly beyond the threshold for qualifying for the program and are still unable to afford school lunches. Etchart told the Reno Gazette Journal that some parents may even be afraid to fill out the program forms and provide their personal information to the district. Though he didn’t say why, this could be due to fears over immigration statuses.

“When you create one policy that’s going after parents who have every ability to pay, and you’re using collections there, you can also — with that same broadsword — hurt parents who are truly struggling,” Etchart said.

The school board still needs to vote on whether to use debt collectors to recoup funds. The district’s consideration points to a nationwide problem in which children who cannot afford to pay for school meals are shamed and publicly chastised. In some school districts, cafeteria workers are instructed to throw away a child’s hot meal if they cannot pay for their lunch. Others force children to endure the public display of having their hands stamped if they cannot afford their lunch. 

Such measures are ineffective, piecemeal attempts to address a complicated issue. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 30.4 million children rely on low-cost or free lunches everyday. The nonprofit organization No Kid Hungry reported that three out of five teachers of grades three through eight said they regularly see students come to school hungry.

In an effort to combat child hunger, the Obama administration in 2015 expanded a program that provides free breakfast and lunch to all students in schools serving high-poverty populations, without requiring parents to complete an application. But congressional Republicans have attempted to raise the threshold for schools that qualify for the program, which, they argued, would fight “fraud, waste, and abuse.

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Some cities have taken it upon themselves to address the issue. Last year, New York joined Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, Dallas, and Baltimore in providing free lunches to all students, regardless of income.