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The Rise In Student Meal Debt: How to Flip the Trend

The school nutrition game is ever-changing. New guidelines and regulations, changing budgets, and decreasing participation are just a few of the dynamics that keep nutrition directors on their toes. 

On the bright side, cafeterias across the country are trending toward inclusive and healthier fare, offering more international food options, cleaner ingredients and whole-grain rich foods. 

One school nutrition trend however, is on the rise and not in a good way. 

According to the 2019 School Nutrition Trends Report from the SNA, student meal debt has risen once again. In fact, only 1 in 10 districts has seen a decrease in the number of students who do not have the funds to pay for meals. 

In addition, the number of students who are not qualified for free meals and do not have funds to pay for the meals increased by 43.2% of districts year over year. 

School meals are a key component to student success both in and out of the classroom. So, what can you do as a Nutrition Director to keep your students fueled while controlling the level of student meal debt?

You have more of an impact than you think. Here are some simple ways you can stop the rise of student meal debt. 

Offer Online Forms & Payments

Do you still require families to fill out paper forms and send you paper checks? Did you know digital forms are 40% faster to fill out than paper forms?

Not only are they faster to fill out, but families are more likely to submit digital forms and payments earlier since they can be accessed from any device with internet access.

Offering online applications and payments will get your students’ meals registered and paid for faster and with less administrative hassle. In addition, online payments can automatically alert parents of low balance so they can act quickly to prevent meal debt.  

Encourage Families to Apply

Did you know that 48% of students in any district qualify for free or reduced-price meals, however, many of the eligible students are not certified for the program? This is a massive opportunity to decrease student meal debt.

Here are some quick wins you can implement to get your eligible students to take advantage of the assistance. 

Conduct an Application Campaign

Now that you have your meal application forms online, lead your families to apply for the reduced-meals program early and often. Announce this application option on your nutrition website, your online menus, your digital menu boards and your social media accounts; promote your application in every online channel you offer. 

Broadcast the program at every school function. Incentivize early application but also notify families that they can apply all year long in the event that there has been a financial change in the household mid-year.

Carry Over Eligibility

At the start of a new school year, school districts can carry over a students’ eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals for up to 30 days. This way students are covered for the first month. This is especially helpful if parents haven’t submitted their applications for the current school year.

Monitor Students Acquiring Debt

If a student is going into school meal debt, it can be an indicator that the household is in need of financial assistance. Proactively reach out to the families; they may not be aware that they qualify for the free and reduced program. Offer to assist with the application process. It could help them accrue less debt or even prevent it entirely.

Adopt Community Eligibility

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) is a non-pricing school meal service program for schools in low-income areas. CEP allows schools to offer breakfast and lunch free of cost to students without requiring household applications.

Schools that adopt CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs. Utilizing a POS system like the one from Meals Plus, helps you automatically track all the information you need to be CEP compliant. 

According to the Food Research & Action Center (FCAC) database, 4,633 school districts—serving 13.6 million children—have adopted community eligibility. However, in Pennsylvania, only 959 of the 1,264 eligible schools have done so. If your district is not taking advantage of CEP, read about CEP at FRAC’s Resource Library to learn more about which regions are eligible to participate.

Accept Help

At the end of the 2017/2018 school year, two-thirds of districts reported at least a portion of the debt had been paid down, according to the same report from the SNA. Because of charitable contributions, 55% of debt was paid.

Kiani Chin, an 8 year-old from Vancouver eliminated student meal debt for an entire school by selling keychains. Or take Hannah and Haley for example. The two teens sold lemonade on the weekends and donated over $13,000 to schools in their county.

While student meal debt continues to rise, so does charitable giving in the US, including donations made to educational programs. By raising awareness of the increasing levels of student meal debt and by offering online payment for donations, you can pay down your school’s debt even faster. 

Get Involved

Federal funding was one of the top two issues Congress was asked to address in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Legislation following reducing administrative burdens and program complexity. CNR occurs every five years, but you don’t have to wait until then to be heard. 

The FRAC compiled a list of active bills they are supporting, and you and your network can get involved too! The list includes bills such as the “School Hunger Elimination Act” and the “Universal School Meals Program Act”. 

Wipe out school meal debt once and for all.

Just because student meal debt is on the rise now doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. As a Nutrition Director, your main priority is to provide your students with the nutrition they need to excel in school and beyond. That can be difficult to do with financial burdens looming over your shoulder. 

By adopting tools to streamline your operations and taking advantage of the assistance programs available to you (and encouraging families to do the same) you can be on your way to preventing and maybe even eliminating student meal debt from your district.


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