WESTFIELD – Much like the rest of the country, Westfield Public Schools has school lunch debt, often due to a lack of education about available options.
Westfield School Food Services Supervisor Rachel Kania said the district food program is $46,000 in debt this year because of unpaid meals.
“Every year the number grows exponentially higher,” Kania said.
There are a variety of reasons why some students incur meal debt. For some, the students are getting school lunch without parental knowledge, for others, parents are ignoring the bills. Some families have a language barrier to overcome. But for most, Kania said it’s because parents are not aware that they can apply for free or reduced lunch.
“It’s really easy to apply,” said Kania. “You fill out the form with your name, social security number, how many people live in your house and your income. If you receive other state assistance, you just put in your number and you’re automatically approved.”
The form is available online at schoolsofwestfield.org under Food Service in the Department dropdown menu. Kania said it is available in several languages and can be emailed, dropped off or sent into school with students. Someone without access to a computer can contact the school department for assistance.
“Some people think they make too much money to qualify, but you’d be surprised,” Kania said. “And if you don’t qualify for free lunch you may get reduced lunch, which is 40 cents.”
A full price lunch at the high schools and middle schools is $2.45. Elementary school lunch costs $2.30.
Currently in Westfield, there are no penalties for students who have a lunch debt. The food service program is separate from the rest of the school budget and is federally funded. Kania said this means they must end the year with a zero balance. Historically, the debts were forgiven, and the funds owed by students were taken from the school’s general fund so there was a zero balance.
This policy will change, Kania said.
“The School Committee is in the midst of creating a policy,” said Kania. “We’re using the USDA Charging Policy as a guide and the new policy could include holding back things from students.”
Kania said the district has not been aggressive in its efforts to collect the debt. Kania said emails and letters are sent home, but some districts utilize debt collection agencies and other tactics, such as keeping students from graduating or giving students with debt a different lunch than their peers.
One city school, Franklin Avenue Elementary School, meets the qualifications of the state Community Eligibility Program and offers free lunch and breakfast to all students. Kania said Abner Gibbs Elementary School meets the criteria for a Provision 2 school and offers free breakfast. Both schools are implementing a “Breakfast After the Bell” program where students select their breakfast choices and take them back to the classroom to eat so they do not miss out on instruction time.
“We have other school principals who have volunteered to do this next year,” Kania said.
School meal debt is a national problem, Kania said.
“It’s industry-wide and it’s very much a concern,” she said.