Cranston Public Schools is giving its students an early lesson in late capitalism by hiring a debt collection agency to handle unpaid school lunch bills.
According to local NBC affiliate WJAR, the district’s chief operating officer, Raymond Votto, is sending letters to parents with unpaid school lunch debt letting them know that a debt collection agency will be calling them after the first of the year if the lunch debt remains unpaid. Lunches at elementary schools cost $2.50, and $3.25 for middle and high school students.
“In an effort to reduce our unpaid balance, the District has retained the services of a collection agency. The company is Transworld Systems and they will begin their collection efforts effective January 2, 2019,” Votto wrote. “The District lunch program cannot continue to lose revenue.”
While the Cranston Public Schools district is taking arguably extreme measures to resolve their outstanding school lunch debt — which the district says is currently more than $45,000 — the problem of school lunch debt is prevalent at school districts across the country. As The Atlantic reported in 2016, some schools have gone viral in incidents where students’ lunches were thrown in the trash after they didn’t have enough money to pay for it, even when the difference was as small as 30 cents.
In Dowagiac, Michigan, Dominic Gant, a high-schooler, was left embarrassed and hungry when his lunch was taken and trashed for owing $4.95. A 12-year-old in Dickinson, Texas had his school breakfast dumped over a 30 cent debt. And two years ago in Utah, some 40 students had their lunches seized for unpaid meal debts in a case that caused a national uproar. A parent of one of the Utah children told the Salt Lake Tribune it was a “despicable” act, and questioned why children should be “punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up.”
On the other extreme end, Denver Public Schools announced that all students would be given lunch regardless of their ability to pay. However, this has resulted in school lunch debts skyrocketing from $13,000 to more than $356,000, according to Chalkbeat.
Much of this debt has come from impoverished families who qualify for the federally subsidized free and reduced lunch program not knowing they qualify and failing to submit their application. Others who are already on the program don’t realize they have to re-apply for the program every year. And for some immigrant parents, there’s a language barrier, and other parents of immigrant children simply don’t want to fill out government paperwork out of fear of reprisal.
[Denver Public Schools nutrition services regional coordinator Theresa] Peña said the district is stepping up efforts to get every family to fill out the free- and reduced-price meal application for next year — an extra challenge in the current political climate in which some immigrant families fear leaving a paper trail.
Last year, in addition to adding new revenue-generating snacks in elementary schools, the district tried to recoup the debt by making weekly robocalls to parents, working with principals to do outreach to families, and in some cases sending letters home with students.
“We made a pretty hard push,” Peña said. “It did make an impact, but not as great an impact as we had hoped.”
So far, the Cranston Public Schools district in Rhode Island is the only one known to have employed the services of a debt collection agency to resolve outstanding school lunch debt. Votto said parents of students who owe $20 or more and haven’t paid the balance in 60 days will be subject to calls from the debt collection agency.
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.