April 4, 2018 at 5:30 p.m.

Schools try to collect on past-due lunch accounts

By By Paul [email protected]

The Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corp. is using the threat of boring lunches to help recover thousands of dollars in delinquent meal payments.

Bonnie Burbrink, the district's food service director, convinced school board members during a public meeting last week to adopt a policy that will take effect a few weeks into the 2017-18 school year. When that happens, students who have unpaid balances after three successive trips through the cafeteria line will be required to settle for much more mundane, but still nutritious, lunches that might mean a cheese sandwich as the main course instead of pizza, for example.

"We have to do something," Burbrink said after the meeting. "The Food Service budget is totally self sufficient; we can't afford to lose so much money."

According to figures shared Monday, a total of 216 students owed a total of $4,490.

One of those owed more than $500.

The situation has reached an urgent level, Burbrink said, because indebtedness rolls over from one year to the next -- and Food Service gets further and further behind. She said the school district can afford to lose money for only so long, and collecting it from the source is the only viable option. The federal government will not reimburse school systems for the lost money outright, just as it will not allow school systems to use federal funds it already has toward the same end.

Burbrink said that although the district could seek donations, a problem would arise over which debts to pay -- and how to make that fair for all students.

Collecting from the students is not a perfect solution either, she said. It seems to punish students for a delinquency that is probably their parents' fault. But by forcing mundane food choices on their children, Burbrink suspects parents will get the message.

It may not even have to go that far.

Burbrink said she will send letters to parents to make them aware of the policy, and especially when their children are in danger of having to accept the mundane food choice.

The issue is rarely that families can't afford to pay, she said, because families from meager economic backgrounds should already be on the Free and Reduced Lunch program. It is her opinion that many families simply have seen that the school system historically will feed their children the same food everyone else gets, regardless of whether they pay. And when that's the case, they decide to keep their money, especially if the balance has snowballed into something significant.

But Burbrink said one thing is non-negotiable.

"We won't let our students starve."[[In-content Ad]]