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BETHLEHEM, Pa. – When hungry students line up with their lunch trays in school cafeterias next week, they’ll be invited to fill their plates with a heaping hot lunch – even if they owe $50 or $500 on their accounts.

That generosity is because of a new state law that bans schools from stigmatizing children for having debt, a practice commonly known as “lunch shaming.” The law, passed late last year, says any communication about money owed on meal accounts has to be done between school officials and parents, and not involve the student.

But sometimes parents don’t respond to requests for money owed, local school districts have found. Since the law was passed, meal debt in Lehigh Valley school districts has jumped, particularly in the Bethlehem Area School District. In the past, districts had a limit on how many meals students could receive with a negative account; districts can no longer do that.

Bethlehem Area parents may have racked up more debt than parents in any other Lehigh Valley district, $154,590 – a 50 percent jump since the law went into effect. More than 3,370 accounts owe money to the district – with seven students owing more than $1,000 each.

District officials say they have tried everything to recoup the money – sending weekly notices to parents after five unpaid meals; providing information on how to apply for free and reduced lunch; even setting up reimbursement plans where families can pay as little as $5 a week. As a last resort, the district has contracted with a collections agency to contact the 600 or so households that have a lunch debt of $50 or more.

“It’s not our intention to go after the families who are actively making an attempt to pay,” Bethlehem Area’s Chief Financial Officer Stacy Gober said at an August board meeting. “These are accounts that are sitting stale with no communication, no response, no visible cooperation to make good on the balance they have with the district.”

“It may sound harsh,” she said, “but students very quickly know when they go to McDonald’s or Wawa, they have to pay.”

Other school districts contacted by The Morning Call also reported an increase in meal debt since the law was passed.

Saucon Valley’s increased five-fold, to $2,400; Northampton Area’s increased by almost 20 percent, to $9,842; Parkland’s more than doubled, to $11,179; and Quakertown’s almost tripled, to $11,246.

Almost 20 percent of students in the Salisbury School District have an unpaid lunch balance, leaving the district with $4,523 in meal debt. Starting this school year, the district will forward those accounts to a local magistrate to collect.

Lunch debt isn’t an issue in the Allentown School District, where all students receive free and reduced lunches because of the district’s high poverty rate. Easton Area’s lunch debt was $70,198 before the school district wrote it off this summer.

In the past, districts would provide students who had debt with an alternative meal, such as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, that effectively broadcast their debt. That is no longer allowed; all students must be offered the meal available that day. The law also bars schools from allowing students to work off debt by doing chores.

Before the new law, districts sometimes gave children with outstanding lunch debt a peanut butter and jelly sandwish, a practice known as “lunch-shaming.”

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More: More York County students eligible for free lunch

It’s not just in Pennsylvania that districts are seeing lunch debt rise. A survey released this month by the national School Nutrition Association found that 75 percent of school districts racked up unpaid meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year.

“We have heard of schools that have struggled with meal debt as a result of changing policies,” said Diane Pratt-Heavnek, the association’s director.

No child should go to school hungry, she said, while acknowledging that unpaid lunch bills put a strain on schools because there is no “pot of money” that pays for those lunches.

Stale accounts: At Monday’s meeting, the Bethlehem Area School Board voted 7-0 to approve a two-year contract with Transworld Systems Inc. of Bethlehem at a fixed rate of $11.25 per each account pursued. The company will contact parents who owe $50 or more and have not made attempts to pay their debt.

School board President Michael Faccinetto agrees the district needs to do something to collect the debt, but said he’s concerned about working families that struggle financially yet don’t meet the threshold for free and reduced lunch.

“I don’t want to say that everybody is able to pay the debt,” Faccinetto said.

Free and reduced-price meals, funded by the Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program, are provided to children whose families meet certain income thresholds. A family of four would have to earn less than $32,630 a year to qualify for free lunch, or less than $46,435 to get discounted meals.

Households with slightly higher incomes are more likely to struggle, experts on poverty and nutrition say.

Nearly 60 percent of Bethlehem’s 14,000 students qualify for free and reduced meals. Every year, the district sends notices explaining how families can sign up for them. The district also has a link on its website where parents can access the application in English or Spanish.

Superintendent Joseph Roy said most eligible families are signed up for the program.

Daily lunch costs $2.65 for an elementary student and $2.85 at the secondary level in Bethlehem. Reduced lunch is 40 cents for all grade levels.

It’s hard to determine why families aren’t paying the bills. Some may be financially struggling and don’t qualify for lunch discounts, others may qualify but haven’t applied for the free lunch program, and some may be ignoring the debt.

Pratt-Heavner said some qualifying families still struggle to cover the cost of reduced-priced lunches. If a family has four children, she noted, they would be paying $8 a week for lunches.

And there may be undocumented immigrants who don’t apply because they don’t feel comfortable leaving a paper trail, she said.

Fountain Hill Elementary, where 90 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, has the highest lunch debt – $10,828 – among Bethlehem Area’s 16 elementary schools. Hanover Elementary, one of the district’s wealthier schools, has the lowest, at $400.

But poverty doesn’t always align with high lunch debt. Governor Wolf Elementary in Bethlehem, which also is in one of the more affluent parts of the district, has one of the larger debts, at $6,373.

The bottom line, district officials say, is that families need to let the school know they’re struggling financially.

“If you’ve gotten notification every year that your student has outstanding debt and you’ve failed to address it, that’s grossly delinquent,” Gober said. “You need to be reaching out and saying, ‘OK, I can’t afford to pay the whole amount today, but I am willing to pay you so much a week in order to get caught up.’ “

Other options: East Penn took a different approach when its lunch debt started to skyrocket in the spring. A group of district residents, including School Director Ziad Munson, launched an online fundraiser to cover the unpaid meals. The group raised almost $2,300 and covered the full debt.

Munson said he and concerned parents have been discussing other ways to end meal debt.

In Saucon Valley, where parents receive weekly emails when their child’s account is in the red, a donations accounts program has helped. If a student’s account has some extra money in it, they may donate the surplus to the district to offset the negative accounts, Superintendent Craig Butler said.

At a school board meeting this month, Bethlehem Area director Eugene McKeon suggested that the district also consider not allowing students with debt to participate in graduation ceremonies.

That may be allowed under the new law, which states that a district may restrict the privileges of students who owe money for school meals.

But Roy said that isn’t an option the district would take.

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