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Two Rhode Island school districts have turned to collection agencies this year to pursue tens of thousands of dollars in school lunch debt, reflecting the lengths some districts are going to as they try to cover meal costs while avoiding “lunch shaming.”

Earlier this month, the school committee in suburban Cumberland voted to hire F.H. Cann & Associates Inc. to try to track down $47,000 in school lunch debt. And the city of Cranston began using Transworld Systems Inc. in January to go after school lunch debt that had approached $90,000.

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But neither of those decisions received as much media attention as Warwick schools, which made national headlines earlier this year for giving sunflower-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, instead of hot meals, to students whose families owned lunch money. Public outcry over lunch shaming prompted the Chobani yogurt company to donate more than $47,000 to cover Warwick school meals, and the district revised its policy.

“I need the yogurt guy to come up to Cumberland, or maybe CVS will pay the bill,” Cumberland School Committee Chair Paul DiModica said this week.

Nationwide, 75 percent of school districts report having unpaid student meal debt and 40 percent report that the number of students short on lunch money increased in the previous school year, according to a 2018 report from the School Nutrition Association.

Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said the US Department of Agriculture mandated that schools adopt unpaid meal policies by the start of the 2017-18 school year and that they attempt to collect that debt. In doing so, school districts can’t tap federal funds that cover meals for students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, and several states have passed laws meant to stop lunch shaming by offering cheaper meals to those who owe money.

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“As a result of these changes, we’ve seen many districts struggle with escalating debt,” Pratt-Heavner said.

The association doesn’t track how many districts have gone so far as to hire collection agencies. But she said districts have pursued a variety of other strategies. For example, 83 percent help families apply for free and reduced lunches; 78 percent use automated phone calls, texts, and e-mails for low balance notifications; and 56 percent provide financial assistance through donations.

A few years ago, the Cumberland School Committee decided to stop giving cheese sandwiches to students whose families owned lunch money, DiModica said. The decision came amid a national discussion about lunch shaming, he said, and at a time when school meal debt amounted to about $9,000.

Since then, the amount of unpaid meal bills has shot up, approaching $60,000 at one point, and families have ignored numerous letters, e-mails, and phone calls reminding them to pay outstanding balances, DiModica said.

“It backfired on us,” he said. “Our last resort was to hire a collection agency.”

On June 13, the Cumberland School Committee voted unanimously to hire a collection agency, and video of the meeting shows committee members taking the step reluctantly.

“Obviously, this is not something that we want to do,” School Committee member Stephen Hess said. “But given the expense that we are looking at — with a $47,000 overdue lunch balance and, obviously, the district’s existing budgetary concerns — this is something we feel needs to be done.”

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School Committee member Mark Fiorillo emphasized that the school district remains willing to work with parents who are struggling to pay for school lunches. “If parents are having any kind of financial hardship, we will wipe out their balance,” he said. “But that’s not what’s happening. This is really just people not wanting to pay.”

Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, noted that in cities such as Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket, many families meet the income thresholds to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches funded by the federal government. So the problem with school meal debt is appearing in more suburban communities such as Cumberland and Warwick.

Rhode Island ranks 39th in the percentage of state support for education, so much of the burden for supporting schools falls on local property taxpayers, Duffy said. If local communities don’t increase funding, school committees must consider steps such as pursuing school lunch debt, he said. “Seventy-thousand dollars might not seem like a lot, but it might be the equivalent of one teacher or one resource officer,” he said.

Duffy said state legislation has been proposed to require free lunch for all students, but if it’s going to issue that mandate, the state needs to provide the money. “If it is an overriding concern, then the state has to find the resources to provide it,” he said. “As they say across America, there is no such thing as free lunch.”

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Duffy knew of only one other school district that has hired a collection agency: Cranston.

Michael Crudale, chief operating officer for Cranston schools, said the Transworld collection agency spent the first six months of this year sending letters to any families that have gone more than 60 days without paying a lunch bill of more than $20.

While Transworld’s practices have proven controversial elsewhere, Crudale said Cranston is taking a “soft approach” to pursuing school meal debt. “There is no negative impact on their credit,” he said. “We are not looking for that.”

The collection agency has netted about $10,000, Crudale said, and the district has seen an uptick in the number of families applying for free and reduced-price lunches. While the district always sends out applications for free and reduced-price lunches, “a lot of people still fall through the cracks,” he explained.

Cranston does not offer alternative meals to students who are behind on their meal payments, Crudale said. “They eat like they have no debt,” he said.

Pratt-Heavner said nutrition professionals want to ensure students eat healthy school meals. “School meals are as important to learning as textbooks and pencils,” she said. “Ideally, there would be funding to serve all students free meals so this would not be an issue.”


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.

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