In February of 2017, a recorded message went out to parents of students at Lumpkin County Elementary School. The message said that students with outstanding school lunch balances or media library fees would be excluded from field trips and the end of year field day. Naturally parents were alarmed. That’s when they called Dale.
Lumpkin county was experiencing a problem that is not uncommon for schools throughout the country. Some parents had not been paying for the lunches their children were receiving at school. Whether the balance was due to need or simple forgetfulness, the school couldn’t just absorb the shortfall. So the principal was faced with a dilemma: how do you recoup the unpaid fees?
The solution that the principal came up with was to ban children with unpaid balances from participating in field trips and the end of year field day. This solution shocked some parents. Why should the children be forced to lose out because of something their parents did or didn’t do? There was no financial link between the balances owed and the field trips.
We visited Lumpkin County Elementary School to speak to the principal. She confirmed that this policy had gone into effect and that parents had been made aware of it. Luckily for the children, she was able to confirm that so far no child had been left out of an activity as a result of this policy. She suggested that all a parent had to do was to call her and have a discussion about the balances owed and their child would be allowed to participate in school activities. But that hadn’t been made clear in the message to parents.
We also reached out to the school superintendent for Lumpkin County. She told us that she had given her principals the autonomy to make these kinds of decisions and she had to stand behind them. We asked about the fairness of putting this on the backs of young children who don’t get to participate in school activities. She was candid in her answer. She said she gave it a lot of thought, but that the county had a total of $23,000 in shortfalls and she couldn’t rightly ask the taxpayers of Lumpkin County to foot the bill. Clearly this was a difficult situation for everyone involved.
A National Issue
The issue of school budget shortfalls and unpaid lunch balances is not unique to Lumpkin County. Across the nation, schools are struggling to find ways to make up budget shortfalls.
The Food and Nutrition Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) administers the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Through the NSLP, the Federal government provides states with funding to support free and reduced lunches for children from households with an income at or below 130% of the poverty level. There are also other categories that could automatically make a child eligible for a free or reduced lunch. In 2016, over 30 million children received free or reduced lunches.
But sometimes parents in need may not apply for the program. There may be situations, like that in Lumpkin County, where everyone knows everyone and parents are embarrassed to disclose their income status. In other cases it may be unclear why parents don’t apply. But if parents don’t apply, the school cannot be reimbursed by the state for their lunches, leaving the schools in a tight spot.
Making it Right
In this case, everyone was trying to do what’s right, but it ended up falling on the backs of the children at the school. That really tugs at your heartstrings. Some parents set up an online fundraisers to pay off the outstanding lunch balance. They succeeded in raising some money, but it wasn’t enough. In the end, TrustDALE was able to help by donating the remaining money on the balance directly to the school.
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