CLEARFIELD – The Clearfield Area School District, along with its food services department, is trying to stop the significant rise in student meal debt.
At Monday night’s meeting, the school board voted unanimously, 8-0, to approve filing an application to opt into the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
According to Food Services Director Jeff Kavelak, CEP is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas.
CEP allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications.
Instead, schools that opt into CEP are reimbursed using a formula based on the percentage of students categorically eligible for free meals based on their participation in other specific means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
Kavelak said districts, which have a 40 percent or greater Identified Student Percentage (ISP), are eligible for the federal program. The district’s ISP, he said, is currently high enough to opt in, with the deadline for next school year being June 30.
He said under the CEP, student meals would be claimed as either free or paid due to the elimination of reduced meal pricing.
He believed the program would increase student participation in the breakfast and lunch programs and eliminate identification issues for students.
Kavelak estimated the district would receive a reimbursement of $2.71 per student lunch. He noted that every student would be entitled to one free breakfast and lunch per day.
Last year, Pennsylvania enacted its “Lunch Shaming” law, which Kavelak explained prohibits cafeteria staff from communicating directly with students about their meal debt. He said they must communicate with parents, and they do via phone calls and letters.
“However, it doesn’t always mean that the bills get paid,” he said. “Our debt level has risen significantly from last year to this year.
“We don’t take anything off a student’s tray. If they come through with things they don’t have money in their account for, it gets added to their bill. Thus, their debt level keeps growing.”
Kavelak said the CEP would still entitle students to all the usual components of a meal. And, he said if students want any a la carte items, they could pre-order and receive them only if they have money on their account or cash for payment on the spot.
He said they wouldn’t be shaming any students because they would have already been provided with the free meal. He said a la carte items wouldn’t be taken off a tray, instead they wouldn’t be provided unless payment had been made first.
Business Administrator Sam Maney indicated student meal debt had more than doubled from $20,000 last year to $46,000 before the end of this past school year.
For example, Kavelak said students are accruing debt by taking an extra slice of pizza or sandwich when they don’t have the money on their account or other form of payment.
In some cases, these students may be eligible for free lunches. “But they’re accruing debt, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get that money back,” Kavelak said.
Under the CEP, he said the district would need a 20 percent increase in student meal participation to break-even. He’s spoken to other food services directors who have opted into the CEP, and they’ve seen a 10-15 percent increase at lunch and a 15 percent increase at breakfast.
Kavelak said the district could possibly see a decrease in its a la carte sales. He noted it wouldn’t be losing any money though because these items wouldn’t be served unless students had some form of payment.
Maney advised school board members that this was the district’s opportunity to try to “balance things out.” He said the district couldn’t afford for student meal debts to double again and must “stop the bleeding” while it can.
He also recommended that the district give consideration to hiring a collections agency in the future to go after any existing student meal debt. He said Bald Eagle Area has had quite a bit of success with an agency that puts people on the streets to go knock on doors.
“I don’t see any other way but to do this,” he said. “… We are being hit with a double whammy here. We’re paying to prepare the meal and then not collecting the amount for it. This is a way to balance it out without hurting the students.”