Managing Debt

Kids Denied School Lunch Because of Parents’ Debts

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Cafeteria workers threw away the lunches of at least 40 Utah schoolchildren Tuesday because they had past-due accounts. According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, employees at Uintah Elementary didn’t see which children owed money until the lunches had already been served, so the students in debt had their food taken and discarded. They were then given fruit and milk.

“I think it’s despicable,” said Erica Lukes, a mother quoted in the Tribune story. Her 11-year-old daughter’s lunch was taken. “These are young children that shouldn’t be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up.” Lukes said she thought she was current on payments.

The episode unfolded after the Salt Lake City school district’s child-nutrition department realized Uintah had a large number of students with overdue accounts, a district spokesman told the Tribune. The child-nutrition manager’s solution was to suspend those students’ lunches. The food was trashed because it can’t be re-served to another student, the spokesman said.

Unpaid lunch debts can be costly for school districts. Using the National School Lunch Program as a benchmark, a meal costs roughly $3, so overdue accounts for several children can quickly add up. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for the program, which subsidizes meals for children from families below the poverty line. A free lunch is valued at $2.93.)

With that math, it’s easy to see how the debt can get problematic for school districts — but taking kids’ lunches? Many are upset with the school’s decision.

“This ranks up there with the worst type of collection tactic,” said Gerri Detweiler, Credit.com’s director of consumer education. “I can’t think of something much worse than taking food away from children, who aren’t in the position to pay the debt themselves anyway. There are better ways to deal with the problem.”

District officials tried contacting parents with overdue accounts the day before and day of the seized-lunch episode, but not everyone was reached.

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