What do you get when you can’t pay for lunch at school? Maybe just a cheese sandwich.

Local school districts have established new or affirmed existing policies for dealing with student lunch debts, the amounts accrued when students can’t come up with their lunch money.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture required districts nationwide to create and communicate to parents by July a policy for dealing with unpaid lunch money. The department required the new policies after reports of “lunch shaming,” which included replacing a hot lunch with a sandwich or forcing students to wear wristbands or work in kitchens, appeared around the country.

And the amounts schools can’t collect for meals aren’t chicken feed. DeKalb County students have accumulated more than $17,650 in unpaid meal debt so far this school year, according to school officials. In Fulton County, the money rolls over from year to year if it is not paid off. The current debt balance is more than $5,000.

Atlanta Public Schools said it calculates the amounts monthly. Since it is the beginning of the school year, it couldn’t provide a number yet for the amount owed for this year. But APS did say students accumulated more than $240,000 of unpaid meal debt throughout the entire 2016-2017 school year. That amount had to be paid off using the school district’s general fund.

In Fulton and DeKalb schools, students who can’t pay receive a “courtesy” meal, typically a grilled cheese sandwich, after they have charged meals three times. The districts swallow the costs for these alternate menu items. Atlanta Public Schools students continue to receive normal meals, no matter how much debt they have accumulated.

Students at public schools also may apply to receive free or reduced price meals if their family cannot afford to pay.

A bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year that would make illegal “public identification or stigmatization of the child, such as by requiring a wristband or hand stamp.” The bill would also prohibit requirements that a student work in the kitchen.

Fulton County School System
If a Fulton elementary student has already charged three times without repayment, the schools offer an alternate menu item, such as a sandwich and milk or juice. Middle and high school students cannot charge meals, but can receive the alternate lunch.

In elementary schools, school nutrition managers send home letters weekly to parents of children with a negative balance. All schools send email notifications twice a week for students with a balance of $0 or less and call twice a week for students that owe more than $4.50. If not repaid by the end of the year, the balance rolls over to the next year.

DeKalb County School District
In DeKalb, elementary students are allowed to charge up to three breakfast and three lunch meals before receiving a courtesy meal, for which the district does not receive reimbursement.

“This is a courtesy extended to the student and should not occur on a regular basis,” the policy states.
Middle and high school can’t charge meals, but can receive the courtesy meal. Older students are more capable of keeping track of how much money they have in their school lunch account, according to the policy.

“It has been proven that secondary students can assist parents with monitoring and maintaining a positive cash balance in their accounts,” the policy states.

When a student is allowed to charge a meal, the school nutrition manager will call or send a letter to the student’s parents notifying them of their child’s debt.

Atlanta Public Schools
Students at public schools in Atlanta will continue to receive their choice of lunch even if they do not have any money, according to the Atlanta Public Schools policy.

The policy also states the district can set a limit a student can reach before they no longer receive a meal, but the district has not done so, said Latisha Gray, the APS director of communications.

The school will use non-federal funds to pay off lunch debt that is older than 12 months and has not been collected through “reasonable collection efforts.”

Lost lunch money

The school year has just begun, but students already owe local school districts thousands of dollars in unpaid fees for school meals. Here’s what local
districts say they’re owed.

$17,650: Total owed DeKalb County schools so far this year.

$5,000+: Uncollected fees owed to Fulton County schools, including amounts rolled over from last year.

$240,000: Amount Atlanta Public Schools students owed for unpaid meals during the 2016-2017 school year. APS officials say they haven’t calculated yet the amount owed so far this school year.