Should school lunch be free? A closer look at debt policies by district


(WJHL) – A News Channel 11 investigation found school districts across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia often struggle to feed students while keeping lunch debt in check.

Policies in the region vary but a proposed bill in Tennessee aimed at preventing “lunch shaming” could set standards on one side of the state line.

The legislation, introduced by Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville), would in part:

  • Require all students be given a meal upon request;
  • Ban schools from throwing away lunch trays that have already been served;
  • Prohibit the public identification of a student who has accumulated debt, including by offering them an alternative meal;
  • Ban schools from requiring a parent or guardian pay costs from collection agencies hired to collect student meal debt;
  • Allow schools to fill out free and reduced lunch forms for students whose parents refuse to do so.

Greeneville parent Peter Higgins, chair of the Food Security Committee at the George Clem Multi-Cultural Alliance, said free meals should be a fundamental part of the public school curriculum. He said districts should find a way to make it happen, even if it means raising property taxes.

“It’s madness that it’s even an issue,” he said. “Hungry kids don’t learn as well and we have the means and the wherewithal to fix that yet we don’t.”

According to policies reported to News Channel 11 by 18 school systems, all districts allow Pre-K through 8 students to charge a meal if they don’t have enough money, though some limit how many.

Kingsport, Johnson City and Bristol, Tennessee school systems don’t allow high school students to charge at all. Greene County Schools don’t have a set charge policy in place for high school students.

“There’s a little more self-accountability when you’re dealing with students that are 15, 16, 17 years old,” said Kingsport City Schools Assistant Superintendent Andy True.

“The only reason I can give you is that’s the way it’s always been here,” said Greene County Schools Nutrition Liason Arlette Johnson.

All four systems say they have non-perishable items available and additional supports in place to make sure students don’t go hungry.

Wise County, Sullivan County and Kingsport schools were the only systems that said they offer a cold option, instead of a hot meal, if a student reaches the district’s spending cap.

True said that in Kingsport, the alternative lunch is a sandwich, fruit and milk.

“Really it’s just a way to continue to have food accessible for children if they have debt but at the same time working with parents trying to keep it from getting out of control,” he added.

Greeneville and Greene County schools contact a collections agency at the end of the school year if a student has an outstanding debt of $10 or more. That can harm a parent’s credit.

“Before we put that in place we were having over $10 thousand a year in debt and if we hadn’t put that in place then we wouldn’t recouping any of that money,” Johnson said.

Even using a collections agency, Johnson estimated the school system collects about half of the debt. “If we’re lucky,” she said.

Johnson said USDA policy doesn’t allow school nutrition programs to rack up any debt, so remaining dollars are paid off by the school board.

The numbers above were self-reported to News Channel 11 by local school systems and reflect debt levels at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, before school board payments.

Schools with * fall under the Community Eligibility Provision, meaning all students receive free lunch.

At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, Washington County, Tennessee had by far the highest lunch debt reported in the region with more than $33 thousand.

Greene County had the second-highest at about $8,600. This comes after three schools there fell out of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), a federal program that allows all students at designated schools with high poverty levels to eat for free. When schools fall out of eligibility, parents must complete an application for free and reduced lunch.

“You have parents who may forget to fill out the free and reduced application or may just not want to fill out the free and reduced application and unfortunately that’s something we can’t force them to do,” Johnson said. “We do have a lot of free and reduced kids and we do have a lot of kids where, unfortunately, school is the most stable place for them.”

The tables below contain summaries of school system lunch debt policies as reported to News Channel 11.

You can view a more detailed PDF of these policies by clicking below.

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