Donations to cover school lunch debt appreciated, but won't solve old problem

Wolves and Lynx CEO Ethan Casson presents a donation.
Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx CEO Ethan Casson (center) presents a donation for unpaid student lunch accounts to Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff (right) and culinary and wellness services director Bertrand Weber on Thursday.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

Donors around the Twin Cities have been stepping up in recent weeks to pay off students' school lunch accounts.

But no matter how heartwarming the contributions are, lunch debt is not a new problem — and it will reappear after the donations are gone because many families who don't pay for lunch can't afford it.

After a Twitter campaign earlier this month, Minneapolis collected almost $100,000 in donations, and St. Paul donors have more than taken care of the $28,000 total debt in that district.

An anonymous donor paid off balances at Maple Grove high school on Wednesday, and Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx CEO Ethan Casson presented a $15,000 check to Minneapolis schools superintendent Ed Graff on Thursday in the Washburn high school kitchen.

Some families run up debt because they qualify for a federal program offering free and reduced price meals but don't get signed up. They may be unaware of the program or reluctant to share personal information, especially if they are undocumented immigrants.

Or they may be ashamed to ask for help.

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"There is stigma around the school lunch program that it's believed to be for poor people," said Stacy Koppen, St. Paul nutrition services director.

Koppen said the federal income limit for the program can also be a problem for families who make just a few dollars over the cut-off.

"We know those families still need help, they still need resources, and yet the regulations are very black and white," Koppen said.

Other expenses like medical bills can make lunch unaffordable for families who don't qualify for free meals.

"When I have to sit down with families and they're asking, 'Well why didn't I qualify? I've got all of this debt,' and they're trying to get qualified, it's always the hard message to send that I can't consider your debt in this, it's just your income," said Michele Carroll, Minneapolis culinary and wellness services business manager.

While it's not a majority, Carroll said, some of the debt comes from students who can afford meals but choose not to pay. In Minneapolis, students receive a regular hot lunch even if they've run up debt. In some other districts, including some schools in St. Paul, students get an alternative meal like a cheese sandwich instead.

Carroll called sticking with hot lunch a "hard balance" because lunch debt comes out of Minneapolis' general fund, money that could go to other school programs.

"It's worth it for those kids that can't afford [lunch]," Carroll said. "It's not worth it for those that can afford it, they're just not paying."

Districts send out letters and automated phone calls and set up payment plans to get the overdue money back.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district sends lunch debt to a collection agency when it's overdue by more than 60 days and families don't set up a payment plan with the district.

"It's not very responsible to our community to keep ringing up and racking up debt," said Noah Atlas, Anoka-Hennepin's child nutrition director.

A 2010 federal law aimed at making school meals healthier didn't help programs' budgets, Atlas said.

Lunch debt wouldn't be as big of a problem, he said, if programs didn't have to deal with higher costs from the added regulations.

"It did cost more, and the government didn't give enough money to cover those costs," Atlas said. "It just told us to take care of it."

A federal program allows schools with high numbers of low-income students to offer all students free lunch. St. Paul has 40 of those schools, and Minneapolis has 28. State funds also cover the full cost of reduced-price meals for the students that qualify for them.

Koppen said that approach should be expanded so all students can eat free. She compared lunch to other school necessities.

"Textbooks are not optional. We don't charge some students for textbooks and not others," she said. "I think school lunch should be regarded at the same level of need."