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story.lead_photo.caption Fulton Public Schools

When school is in session, no students go hungry at lunchtime.

But when a child shows up to school without lunch money, they might find themselves racking up meal debt.

In Fulton, Cremer Therapeutic Community Center's residents recently donated $671.25 to Bartley and McIntire elementary schools to pay off student meal debt.

"We're a Fulton facility, so the idea was, what can we do to help in our community?" assistant warden Kim Hays said.

The men who live at the community center raise money for a children's charity through the Doris Masek Children's Fund by purchasing snacks at the canteen. This year, they decided to dedicate the funds to helping children unable to pay for their meals at school.

Hays said when deciding where to donate, some of the residents at the men's treatment program said they knew what it was like to be that child.

"This is something that the guys choose to take part in," Hays said.

Thanks to the donation, students returning to school next year at Bartley and McIntire will have a clean slate and won't have to worry about the meals they weren't able to pay for this year.

"People have to realize that we're in this for the kids, but in order for a food service department in a school to continue to operate, it has to be looked at as a business," said Rhonda Fletcher, Fulton Public Schools director of food services. "And just like any other business, we can't provide things for free forever and ever and ever."

Student meal debt is a nationwide problem. In 2019, the School Nutrition Association released the results of a study that showed 75 percent of school districts who responded to a survey had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

"Our district, like most in the United States, has spent a lot of time thinking and worrying along with our parents about student lunch debt," North Callaway R-1 School District Superintendent Nicky Kemp wrote in an email.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires schools to attempt to collect any student meal and prohibits the use of federal funds to pay off unpaid debt. This means schools are often forced to use education funds to cover losses.

"Because of this, when the district is forced to cover costs for unpaid balances, the funds have to be taken out of general revenue funds, which are what pay for the supplies necessary to teach children," Kemp wrote. "Because of this, the district is limited in its ability to assist families who may need assistance paying their lunch balances."

North Callaway has also at times received donations to cover lunch balances.

South Callaway R-2 School District Superintendent Kevin Hillman described a similar situation in an email. Hillman said there has been a slight increase in recent years in the number of students with unpaid meal fees.

"We have had some very generous people in our community that have given to this process," Hillman wrote. "Up until recently, it has covered most of those costs."

At most schools, students aren't expected to show up in the cafeteria with exact change every day. Instead, families load up meal accounts.

School staff members reach out to parents whenever a student's lunch account gets low. While exact policies might very across school districts, in Fulton, students can accumulate up to 10 unpaid meal charges.

"We try to be proactive and make sure that we notify parents when their meal accounts are getting low on funds so that they know if they need to deposit more money, and we definitely send out emails and make phone calls and send out letters when children are getting in the hole and owe money on their meal accounts," Fletcher said.

Districts keep meal debt low by providing free alternate meals.

After 10 unpaid meals, students are provided with an alternate meal, often a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich, at no cost. Fulton school staff never take a meal away from a child, so occasionally a student might slip through the line and end up with slightly more than 10 unpaid meals.

As with any other fee, students are expected to pay meal debt before they graduate.

"We have to write off some debt at the end of every year," Fletcher said. "Actually, our meal debt was probably higher than normal at the end of this school year because we shut down so quickly. You know, normally we work real hard toward the end of school to make sure that we are in contact with families to let them know that there is a debt owed and they need to pay it."

Some students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, but the federal government requires schools collect a new application every year.

"We're fortunate," Fletcher said. "I have a good staff, a good cashier staff, who do stay in contact with students and families to let them know about their meal accounts. If we cannot get any results from contacting them, then even the counselors and the principals will get involved. I'll make personal phone calls and write letters, and we've been known to take applications to people's houses."

If a child was on free or reduced lunch the previous year, they have 30 days at the beginning of the school year to reapply. After that point, the schools have to start charging for meals until they turn in an application. After that point, if they meet the income requirements, they will begin receiving free meals again, but they might have already built up some debt if the application wasn't turned in on time.

"We've had students that have eaten alternate meals, and that's OK with their family and that's what we end up doing," Fletcher said. "Usually in that case, we have people who notice that, and they'll take it upon themselves to help that student out."

In addition to the occasional donation like the one from Cremer Therapeutic Center, teachers and staff might pitch in to help a student.

"I have staff that pay off debts, I pay off debts, (and) teachers pay off debts," Fletcher said. "We would have a lot more meal debt if we didn't have those caring people. We work here because we care for kids."

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