I’m sure you know this story all too well. It’s lunchtime and students are making their way into the cafeteria to eat, mingle, and take a mental break from their day of learning. A student goes through the lunch line, taking particular care in deciding what he/she wants to eat. They make their way to one of your cashiers standing at the end of the line, but – something is different here.

After the student enters his/her identification number, the cashier sees that they have no money in their account. What happens next?

Do you allow the student to be served the meal, hoping that they’ll get money in their account the next day? Or do you prohibit the regular meal, and instead give the child an “alternative meal”; usually something very basic like a grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich with water or milk to drink.

How your district handles this all too common situation is most likely dependent upon the Charge Policy that your district has implemented.

Whether you’re part of a small school district with just a few hundred to a few thousand kids, or part of a major metropolitan district with tens of thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of children – the problem of unpaid meal charges and delinquent school food accounts affects us all.

It’s possible (and quite common) for smaller districts to end up with delinquent-account debt that totals in the tens of thousands of dollars at the end of a school year. For large districts, the debt numbers are mind-boggling, sometimes even reaching into the millions of dollars!

Since all schools that participate in the NSLP must zero out their balance sheets at the end of each year, all this debt must be recouped from somewhere. Typically, your nutrition department will just pull funds from the district’s General Fund to make up the difference. But with debt levels rising in many districts year over year, this is not sustainable in the least!

To help your district work toward lowering your overall end-of-year debt due to negative student accounts, I’ve put together a few nuggets of information to digest and possibly implement inside your nutrition operation.

Make your Charge Policy official

By now, almost every district has a Charge Policy of some kind, no matter how informal it may be. If its not clearly written out in your bylaws, that would be a good place to start. Getting your policies and procedures on paper (and online) solidifies them, and allows people to be educated appropriately.

Your Charge Policy can get somewhat complicated depending on the different negative charge zones that you have set up according to school type. Some districts allow their elementary-aged kids to charge two breakfasts and two lunches before being served an alternative meal. Yet, that same district doesn’t allow middle school and high school students to charge any meals to an empty account. Take these grade-level considerations into account when ironing out an official Charge Policy.

Parents produce the pocketbook, so they need to know the rules too

Obviously, your staff will need to be fully aware of your district’s Charge Policy, but the parents need this same education as well. Distribute information to parents regarding your Charge Policy at the beginning of the school year, or even earlier if sites host open house or “Meet the Teacher” events. This way, you ensure that every participating party is aware of the expectations and consequences of failing to meet those standards.

Build accountability within your nutrition department

Once you’ve made your Charge Policy official, do yourself a big favor and ensure all employees stick to it. Being in this industry, we all have huge hearts for children, and it pains us to deprive them of a good meal. Too often, kitchen staffers will cover for these students out of their own pocket and say, “just this once,” but this prevents the consequence of going negative from being felt by the student, and by association, the parent.

However, if a student is fed a simple, alternative meal like a sandwich and milk, he/she is more likely to remember the experience, go home, and tell his/her parents that his account is zeroed out.

Be persistent in your follow up on negative balances

So now you’ve educated parents on the rules – but now for the hard part… enforcing those rules. I’m sure that the last thing you need in your nutrition operation is to spend more time trying to collect outstanding funds than preparing food, planning menus, and serving your students. But, if you’re going to turn the pattern of rising debt around, that’s exactly what you should be asking your food service staffers to do.

This SNA presentation suggests having cashiers review which student accounts are negative prior to coming into the lunch period for the day, and proactively call student’s guardians. If your district has an Online Payment system such as ParentOnline, the parent or guardian can quickly and easily deposit funds into the child’s lunch account. Those funds will be there and available for a meal purchase at lunch.

If funds are not deposited before the child arrives for lunch, a note can be pre-printed and placed in a discrete envelope to hand the child, should they attempt to come through the line.

Additional methods of communication that are growing in popularity include automated low balance reminder emails, text messages, and automated phone calls. Regardless of which methods you choose to use in your district, it’s a good practice that all communication attempts with the guardian be recorded. Maybe you will find that one method works more successfully than others!

Has your district found the secret recipe to reducing your unpaid meal debt? We’d love to hear your advice – what worked, what didn’t. Let us know in the comments section below!