School lunch debt increases by thousands in growing Berkeley County School District

The negative accounts could mean impacts across the district and for the parents who owe.

VIDEO: School lunch debt increases by thousands in growing Berkeley County School District

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Berkeley County School District reports a rise in school lunch debt, especially over the last two years.

Kids are still getting fed, but parents are not always paying for those meals. The resulting negative accounts could mean impacts across the district and for the parents who owe.

For the 2017-2018 school year, BCSD’s school lunch debt totaled about $230,000.

In comparison, about $302,000 has already added up for the current school year. That’s an increase of about $70,000 dollars.

There is still time for parents to pay up on their child’s account before the end of this school year though, so officials are hoping that current total has hit its peak and will decrease. However, if it doesn’t, it could mean impacts felt by teachers and students next school year.

“Unfortunately, at the end of the year, whatever debt that incurred by these parents and isn’t paid off, the school district has to make up those funds,” Linda Fairchild, BCSD’s director of child nutrition, said. “Those funds will come directly out of the general fund to pay off because we are a federal program and we cannot end our program in the negative.”

Not paying a child’s school lunch debt off could also mean trouble for the parents. Those negative accounts eventually get turned over to collection agencies.

However, BCSD does have several programs and tools to help parents who may not be able to pay or who may not be aware of their child’s account debt.

“Berkeley County is so family oriented. We never turn away a child. It doesn’t matter if that baby is four years old or 18 years old, we’re not going to turn away a child that’s hungry,” Fairchild said. “If parents are having a hard time paying for meals, but they don’t feel like they qualify for anything, if they’ll just be in communication with us, we can work out a payment system or anything for them to help them over any kind of issues they are having. Our job is feeding kids, and we’re going to do that 110 percent every day.”

Officials with the school district say some of this school lunch debt can be attributed to the population growth Berkeley County has seen over the past few years.

“In Berkeley County, we’re exploding,” Fairchild said. “Our population of students is just continuing to rise, and I think that has a lot to do with it.”

Fairchild says school lunch debt is occurring more at the high schools in the county. She believes this is happening because of communication issues with parents. However, there is no particular school accruing more debt than others, she said.

“We have rural schools. We have inner city schools, and we’re seeing the debt kind of spread out,” Fairchild said.

For parents, the district started offering an online tool to allow control over meal accounts last year. They allow moms and dads to see how much their kids are spending, what they are buying, how much they owe, and payment options.

CLICK HERE to go to BCSD’s website to access your child’s account.

There are also 11 schools in Berkeley County involved in a community eligible program that offers free breakfast and lunch for all students. It’s a new program for the district this year.

“If I could get all my schools on that, if the government would let me, that would be awesome, but for those parents they don’t have to worry about filling out any kind of application to receive those benefits,” Fairchild said.

Despite those meals being covered, the school lunch debt is still increasing from year to year, and Fairchild hopes parents will pay more attention to how these delinquent accounts can affect the district as a whole.

“The school district is going to have to take those funds out of the general budget, and we don’t want that to happen because we could have more teachers, school books, any more resources that should go to children instead of paying off school lunch charges,” Fairchild said.

She hopes the stigma of free and reduced lunches can disappear and that parents will speak up if they need help.

“The circumstances our parents are in, sometimes they don’t really want to reach to us for help and they think maybe they can handle their problems,” Fairchild said. “If I can stress anything it’s just, please contact us.”

Fairchild said there are ways the district can help parents who may be struggling or who think they may not qualify for assistance, and these cases are handled confidentially.

We are going to take care of the children regardless of what it takes but unfortunately the parents who do not pay off their debt and who haven’t reached out to us for any kind of resolution, they are going to be tuned over to a collection agency at the end of the year,” Fairchild said. “I don’t want that to happen. We want to solve these problems prior to that happening.”

The school district sends letters to parents and does phone calls to let families know they owe.

“We are here to help, and I don’t want them to be afraid to reach out to us. Everybody, including myself, has always ran into issues with not being able to have enough money to do x, y, and z, but we are here for the kids,” Fairchild said. “From the classroom to the lunchroom, those kids are taken care of every day. We will help any way we can. Just talk to us.”

Fairchild shared an example of one such issue the district noticed and remedied.

“We had a parent at home that did not speak nor read English, and as soon as we crossed that barrier, we were able to clear up that debt and get them on the program they needed to be on,” Fairchild said. “Regardless we are going to feed those babies, so they can go in that classroom and learn. That’s what us lunch ladies do, and we do it every day.”

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