Student Lunch Debt Lowdown: What you need to know

FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - "Studies show that you can't learn if you're hungry, and so we want to take that basic need and make sure that it's fulfilled so that students aren't distracted by being hungry and can focus on whatever's happening in the classroom," says Cindy Hogenson, Fargo Public Schools' Director of Nutrition Services.

That's why Fargo Public Schools decided to feed all children hot meals - even if their lunch account was empty. And while students benefit from the change, the district's food services program doesn't.

"We have seen an increase in negative balances accrued by students in those last two years," Hogenson says. "This year, we're currently at negative $26,000, which is an increase from last year – which is our first year with the new policy. Last year, we ended the year with about $7,000 in debt."

And some of that hurt is being passed on to families as well.

"Unfortunately, we can't just write off those debts," says Hogenson. "If parents are non-responsive for a long time, a certain amount of time, and the balance has grown past a certain threshold, we do work with collection agencies to try to collect some of those funds."

But now, the school district has a new problem to deal with. The federal government wants the district to raise the cost of school meals.

"The USDA requires the schools to reevaluate their paid meal costs because the free meal reimbursement is higher than the schools normally charge for the paid meals. And so they don't want the free meals to subsidize the paid meals," says Linda Schloer, the Director of North Dakota's Department of Public Instruction's Child Nutrition and Food Distribution Programs. "The goal is to gradually get up to a point where it's closer to that free meal reimbursement rate."

"This year, the USDA's target price is $3.00. And so what we're required to do is compare our current price for lunch to that target price set by the USDA. If our price does not meet that set amount, then the school food service department is required to raise prices. The most that's required to raise prices in any given year is ten cents. This year, we are making the recommendation to increase five cents," Hogenson says.

The newly raised money would help the food program pay its bills, but even the modest price hike of five cents per meal could expand the school lunch debt - putting Fargo Public Schools and its families between a rock and a hard place.

"In order for Fargo Public Schools to keep up with salary increases, food price increases, also just the cost of replacing equipment and improving their cafeterias – they need to make sure that the have a consistent revenue coming in," says Schloer.

"Our source of income is from funds from the federal government to help support us. And then also the prices that students are paying for their meals. And so between those two sources of income – we need to cover all of our operating costs," Hogenson says.

"I think any increase would impact some families. I think some families would obviously benefit or appreciate a decrease in price," she adds.

But education experts say residents can help by speaking out.

"Our recourse would be to go back to our politicians, our lawmakers at the national level – because this is a federal program. And there has been some consideration of that already," Schloer says.

"With any law that the community or citizens want to see changed – there's the correct process for going through that," says Hogenson. "We hope legislators are responsive to that and consider that."

Residents can also donate funds to help erase students' lunch debt. Hogenson says the best way to do that is through Fargo Public Schools Development Foundation.

The proposed five cents per meal price hike is being discussed during Tuesday night's school board meeting. If it is not approved, the food service program may have to borrow funds from the school district's general fund.

Meanwhile, another Fargo school will be able to offer free meals to all students next year. Now, Jefferson Elementary will join Madison Elementary School in offering all student meals for free.

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