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News 13 Investigates: Lunch programs at many WNC schools are thousands in debt

At Isaac Dickson Elementary the delinquent account is up to $3,300 for school lunches this school year. Source: WLOS Staff

A News 13 investigation reveals many school lunch programs across the mountains are tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

It's a difficult and complex issue that directly impacts schools because no school wants to see a child hungry. It's become such an issue that the federal government has said no later than July 1, 2017, all schools must have a policy to deal with unpaid meals.

“Are you buying anything today?” Isaac Dickson Cafeteria Manager Pearley Hampton asked.

Hampton makes sure the 460 students at Isaac Dickson Elementary get a nutritious meal.

“If you put your salad inside or on top of the tacos, and mix it up real good, well that's some good eating,” Hampton said to one of the students.

“It can get hard sometimes,” says Hampton.

Hard, when a student's lunch account is past due.

“It's not their fault,’ she said.

“I ain’t miss no meals, I ain't going to let these kids miss a meal, (laughing). This may be the last meal they get until tomorrow,” explained Hampton, taking a more serious tone.

A parent herself, she knows asking for a free or reduced lunch can be hard to swallow.

“I'm a single parent. I struggle to take care of my daughter, but I don't hesitate when it comes to helping for something for her,” Hampton said.

At Isaac Dickson, the delinquent account is up to $3,300 for school lunches this school year.

Sometimes it's not the parent's fault.

“Sometimes the kids don't turn the papers in, so we start calling. They're like, 'Well, I didn't know that.' So, they'll usually start sending a little bit at a time,” Hampton said.

Other times it is.

“We end up at the end of the year paying thousands of dollars to basically subsidize our school nutrition programs,” Charlie Glazener, Asheville Public School’s Executive Director of Community Relations, said.

Schools said they feel more parents might qualify for help, a free or reduced lunch, but won't apply.

“There are folks there who could qualify, and then they wouldn't have the bills, and that would work well for them and us,” Glazener said.

They want parents to know at all the schools we spoke with, it's an anonymous process, and in Asheville school cafeterias and elsewhere, you'd never know who's eating a free lunch and who's paid full price.

“I had to learn the hard way. I'm telling these parents (to) stop being so selfish and ask for help,” Hampton said.

In Asheville City Schools, for August through mid-March, their debt is $116,000.

In Buncombe County Schools, the debt's just over $28,000.

This school year, county schools set a new limit to how long a student can go without paying.

“This year we lowered that to $25, so it's really up to the local education authority and me,” Buncombe County Schools Nutrition Director Lisa Payne said.

At that point, schools News 13 talked with won't let a kid go hungry, but they can opt to give students an alternative meal, usually a cheese sandwich.

“That alternative meal is still a healthy, nutritious meal of a sandwich with cheese, fruit, and milk. So, they're getting their protein, they're getting their grain, they're getting their dairy, and they're getting their fruit. So, is that perfect, no,” Payne said.

What parents may not realize is that News 13's investigation found rules are tough for every school, and the schools don't set them.

“I follow a strict set of USDA guidelines. So, personally or professionally, I can do nothing,” Payne said.

Schools can't and don't profit off of lunch.

“I am allowed to make $0.02 per meal, and the $0.02 is what I use to operate 44 cafeterias,” Payne said.

News 13 uncovered many schools barely break even, but USDA guidelines prohibit schools from writing off the debt.

“We have parents that truly really cannot afford and call and plead with us to erase their debt, and that's heartbreaking because I can't. I can't. It's part of our federal regulation that I can't just eliminate the debt, and so I count on the community to assist as possible,” Payne said.

In low-income areas, schools that qualify for the community eligibility provision get free breakfast and lunch for all students.

In western North Carolina, five counties have all schools that qualify: Cherokee, Swain, Transylvania, Rutherford and McDowell.

In 12 other counties, only some schools do.

Schools can lose their CEP designation, similar to what happened at Central Haywood High School in Haywood County when the elementary school closed. Parents must now fill out an individual form for free or reduced lunches at the high school.

So, how do schools get by? An investigation uncovered a few secrets through the western North Carolina Coop. Seven county schools are combining their buying power to get better prices.

“If we can agree on products, we can drive prices down,” Payne said.

They also buy Whole Foods castoffs.

“That's rejected from Whole Foods because it's not perfect, and we're able to buy it, and we're able to serve organic, local foods to our children,” Payne said.

In rare cases, the community has come forward to pay off some school’s debt.

“That means somebody else out there cared, too,” Hampton said.

Asheville City taxpayers pay a supplemental tax the schools collect and use to pay the unpaid bills.

Schools told News 13 it's important that parents update their phone number when it changes. Buncombe County Schools calls parents Tuesday and Thursday when balances top $25.

Several civic groups have raised funds to pay off the bill at schools like Candler Elementary although they've wanted to remain anonymous. Hill Street Baptist Church made a donation to help pay down Isaac Dickson Elementary's school lunch bill.

If you want to donate to a school to help pay their lunch bill you can reach out to the individual school directly. In Buncombe County, you can call 828-255-5934 and they'll direct you to a civic organization which can help you make a donation to help pay off the lunch bill for a group of students or a specific school.

If you have a story you'd like investigated, email us at iteam@WLOS.com.

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News 13 reached out to 16 western North Carolina school systems with the following questions:

  1. As of mid-March what is your school systems delinquent lunch debt for the 2016-2017 school year?
  2. Does the school system have a written policy on delinquent meals? Is there a certain threshold when a meal is changed or if students are no longer provided a meal?
  3. What does the school do to make up that debt?
  4. Does the school system feel it’s got many families who would qualify for a free or reduced lunch, what percentage do you believe qualifies, but doesn’t register?
  5. Anything else the district would like to add on the issue?

News 13 WLOS only received responses from six of those school systems and here are their responses:

From Yancey County school nutrition director Lynne Deyton:

"As a matter of course, we work with parents to keep outstanding charges in check so delinquent lunch debt is not a problematic issue for Yancey County Schools. Students are allowed to charge meals and our current outstanding charges are less than $2,000. We feel comfortable the majority of these charges will be paid by the end of the school year. Based on local policy, students are never denied a meal or served a lesser meal. Currently, 55.36% of YCS students qualify for free or reduced price meals. Through the direct certification process, eligible children qualify for free meals without the need for household applications. The direct certification system matches student enrollment lists against SNAP and other assistance agency records and requires no action by the child’s parent or guardian. By eliminating the need for paper applications for these families, more students automatically qualify for free meals."

From Swain County school nutrition director Jennifer Brown:

Thanks for the opportunity to contribute to your story. This is definitely and ongoing problem in our school district.
Here are my answers to your questions;
1) of our 4 schools, the two elementary schools are either CEP or universal free (all kids eat breakfast and lunch at no charge at these schools) therefore there is no possibility of incurring student debt at these 2 schools. Swain High School and Swain Middle (which includes our Pre-K program) are the only schools where student debt is incurred. At these two schools the amount currently owed to the cafeteria by students is approx $6,000.
2) We do not have a written policy on delinquent meals. Students are not denied a meal due to debt owed to the cafeteria. Our procedure is to actively and frequently notify families of delinquent debt with phone calls and letters to parents and additionally utilize school personnel such as school social workers to make contact with families concerning debt owed in the cafeteria.
3) At the end of the school year we record the debt owed and continue to seek payment up until a few weeks until the next school year begins, at that point any outstanding debt is considered unrecoverable and the LEA reimburses the school nutrition program the amount of the bad debt.
4) As the School Nutrition Director, I feel we are able to capture most students that qualify for free/reduced meals and get them qualified. This is mainly due to the cooperation and teamwork among our cafeteria managers,principles and support staff such as social workers to identify students that owe money to the cafeteria and reach out to them to determine what their barriers are to paying the debt or to applying for free and reduced meals.
5) As the School Nutrition Director , I am thankful that our district sees the intrinsic value that feeding kids has to the success of students in the classroom and therefore chooses not to enact any policies that would deny a child access to a school meal. In order to safeguard this direction our district has taken, I and my staff work hard to recover any debt we can from families that are able to pay, and do not publicly advertise the fact that the LEA pays unrecoverable debt at the end of the school year.

From Jackson County schools Nutrition Director Laura Cabe:

1. As of mid-March what is your school systems delinquent lunch debt for the 2016-2017 school year? $653.53
2. Does the school system have a written policy on delinquent meals? Is there a certain threshold when a meal is changed or if students are no longer provided a meal? Yes. $10.00
3. What does the school do to make up that debt? We invoice each school for the debt at the end of the year.
4. Does the school system feel it’s got many families who would qualify for a free or reduced lunch, what percentage do you believe qualifies, but doesn’t register? Yes, maybe 5 %. I think some families may be too proud to receive the benefits.
5. Anything else the district would like to add on the issue? For those who have a $10.00 balance we do provide an alternate meal which is a cheese sandwich, fruit, vegetable and a milk. Though we do not receive reimbursement for this meal, regardless of the situation, we are here to feed and nourish children.

Henderson County Schools provided us with the following breakdown:




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