Unpaid Meal Debt: How to Address the Elephant in the K‑12 Lunchroom

Learn five tips to reduce unpaid meal debt in your K‑12 lunchroom, including conducting direct certification throughout the year and partnering with your PTA.

School lunchroom tray

With the return to normal operations, school districts are required to collect meal applications, to claim free, reduced, and paid, and to charge accordingly for meals. This return to traditional school lunch operations also means a return to unpaid meal debts. So far this school year, districts across the country have reported large levels of unpaid meal debts These debt challenges typically fall into three main categories:

  • Qualified families don’t submit meal applications
  • Families who may not qualify for free or reduced-price lunch but are suffering the effects of inflation
  • Families who fail to continually add funds to their child’s meal accounts

The Unpaid Meal Debt Issue is Sizable

Already in the 2022-2023 school year, some districts have accumulated unpaid meal debts higher than what they report in an average school year. In prior years, the average meal debt per child was $170.13 a year with over 1.5 million children unable to afford their school meals. These worrying statistics are likely to rise through the next school year and beyond. School districts should be vigilant and proactive to mitigate unpaid meal debts while still ensuring children have access to a nutritious school lunch.

5 Ideas to Reduce Unpaid Meal Debt in Your District

1. Partner with your PTA to Create an Angel Fund

Unpaid meal debts can quickly become the elephant in the lunchroom. No one wants to refuse a child lunch or ask them to take a different meal leaving the child embarrassed and primed for lunch shaming. The holidays are a great time to collaborate with your school’s PTA to sponsor a holiday drive to collect donations for an “angel fund” that can help pay off unpaid debts. Your PTA is a valuable resource that exists to support the students and can be instrumental in helping to raise funds to reduce unpaid meal debts at the school. Leveraging the PTA and other community relationships may help raise funds that can cover unpaid meal debts throughout the school year.

2. Invest in the Right Nutrition Software 

Your nutrition software can be instrumental in collecting contributions to fund school meals. Check to see if your nutrition program has a feature that allows families to contribute additional funds to Feed It Forward. If your current nutrition software does not do that, consider creating an optional ‘Feed It Forward Fund Fee’ through your payment platform. Leverage your nutrition and payments software to make it as easy as possible for families to share their goodwill and ensure their child’s classmates all receive a nutritious meal without the burden of lunch shaming.

3. Conduct Direct Certification Throughout the Year

Continue running direct certification throughout the year to capture any new students who are now eligible for school meals. Direct certification is the process of certifying students eligible for free meals based on participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR).

4. Get Creative to Continue Collecting Meal Applications

Find creative ways to encourage families to complete and submit meal applications, perhaps sending meal applications or instructions over the winter break or setting up a station during parent-teacher conferences where you can catch families directly. The more meal applications that your school district can receive and process, the higher the likelihood you can identify those students eligible for free or reduced-price meals.

5. Reevaluate your Nutrition Operations

Consider how you operate your school meal programs in the upcoming school year. Perhaps since the last time your district operated traditionally – which could have been in 2019 – your school district now may be eligible to participate in the Community Eligibility Program (CEP). CEP allows participating districts or schools to serve breakfast and lunch at no charge to all students for a 4-year period. As a reminder, to qualify for the CEP, schools and/or school districts must have a minimum Identified Student Percentage greater than or equal to 40 percent. The Identified Student Percentage is the percentage of students certified for free meals without the use of household applications.

As always, remember to stay connected with your state agency. They can help you evaluate your situation to make the appropriate recommendations that will help your school district operate as efficiently as possible.

How a Comprehensive Nutrition Solution Can Help Mitigate Unpaid Debt

A comprehensive nutrition solution can help your district review your free and reduced-price percentages to determine CEP eligibility. Not only can it help determine your district’s CEP eligibility but monitoring student eligibility can help your district forecast meal revenues and plan accordingly.

A robust parent portal that makes it easy for parents to complete and submit meal applications, check menus and add money for school lunch is key to reducing unpaid meal debts. A comprehensive parent portal, like TITAN Family Portal, can serve as a one-stop shop for guardians to manage their child’s meal account and ensure that they do their part in reducing the unpaid meal debt challenge.

Share with us creative ways your district has helped to combat unpaid meal debts!