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Kids always eat, but school lunch debts mount

SNOHOMISH — The Snohomish School District is approaching an unwelcome milestone: $100,000 in unpaid student meals.
The meal debt carries from year to year, and it’s growing fast.
In the past three years, the balance has more than tripled, from $30,414 at the end of 2015 to $98,643 last week.
At Snohomish High School, where lunch costs $3 and breakfast $1.50, students are cumulatively $22,453 in the red.
Chicken teriyaki, spaghetti and pizza are all on the school’s menu; the amount owed is the equivalent of nearly 7,500 trays of unpaid-for lunches.
Districtwide, the tally exceeds 32,000 lunches.
High school and middle school meal prices are all the same; elementary students pay a quarter less per meal.
There are also reduced-price and free meals for students who qualify, but the $98,643 debt is solely from students not on the free or reduced price plans, said district spokeswoman Kristin Foley.
“Our district does not deny any student with a negative balance a standard meal offering,” Foley said. However, students are not eligible to take à la carte items including cookies, chips, frozen yogurt or bottled drinks without payment.
Snohomish High carries the highest single debt, but every school is in arrears on meals, and five surpass $5,000.
As of Feb. 6, at Glacier Peak High School, the debt is $15,058; at Centennial Middle School, $14,656; at Valley View Middle School, it’s $8,437; and at Riverview Elementary, students have run up a balance of $7,163.
Meal debts are widespread regionally, but the debt amounts vary widely district to district.
In Lake Stevens, a district of nearly 9,000 students, the negative balance is $1,253, and in Mukilteo, a larger district of about 15,200 students, it is $152,789 as of February. The balance in Monroe was $37,751 and was $6,674 in Everett as of January.
The Snohomish School District, like many others, does make efforts to settle up.
“Students with a negative balance of $4 or more are contacted by phone and email once a week. Additionally, students with a negative balance of $20 or more are contacted a second time during the week by phone and email,” Foley said in an email. The district also sends letters home two to three times a year on balances of $20 or more.
Students can graduate even if they have a meal debt in Snohomish Schools, unlike other no-go fees such as textbooks in Monroe, but the district will continue collection efforts after high school is over.
Some Snohomish parents spoke to how the balance might climb.
“My younger brother went to AIM (High School) for a while and apparently owed money for unpaid lunches,” Jackie Mattila said  in an online interview. Mattila said the calls should have gone to her brother or their mother, but they never did, she explained. After months of the calls, she blocked the number.
Sarah Kimes-Pratt said when her children attended elementary school several years ago, they were double charged for a meal, leading to a false balance. When they were in high school, she said her two children never bought lunch at school but again showed a balance, which she refused to pay.
For a mother with a seventh grader, it’s simple. “All children are growing into their executive functioning,” Dzana Kovar said. “I don’t feel that it’s responsible to put unlimited spending decisions in front of children without any means of control.” She said she doesn’t want to criticize the district but thinks it may not understand the problem. The meal account is like a credit card with no limit.
A bill passed last year ensures students receive a meal regardless of whether they have money and prevents students from being identified for nonpayment. In past years, schools in the state could and sometimes did mark students’ hands with stamps, deny them food, or provide an alternative cold meal for non-paying students.
There’s nothing to stop children from dumping their homemade food in favor of a hot meal or lining up for a second meal.
“Our district’s negative food service balance is of concern and we continue to look for ways the balance can be reduced,” Foley said. The district works with families through payment plans, checking if students qualify for reduced or free meals, and making paying convenient with online, email or in-person options.
Anyone who wants to contribute to lowering the cumulative debt can visit the district’s administration building at 1601 Ave. D and ask to speak to someone in Business Services.

Related: Monroe man fundraising to erase school lunch debts


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