Crook County families owe the school district nearly $27,000 for lunches, and some accounts may soon be sent to a collection agency.
"The outstanding meal balances have been increasing each year," said Crook County School District Director of Business and Finance Anna Logan, noting that the debt is up $10,000 from a year ago.
Currently, 467 students have a negative balance.
"I think what happens is there's a lot of people that are just over qualifying (for free or reduced school meals), and they just honestly can't afford it," said CCSD Nutrition Services Supervisor Dana Rudy. "Most people do try."
Another reason could be that families must renew the free and reduced lunch applications every year, and some people don't get them in on time, she said, adding that applications are available on the district website.
"We're trying this year to make a really hard push to get people to apply right away," Rudy said.
The district has 1,367 students who qualify for free breakfast and lunch — which is 49 percent of the student population. Another 296, or 10.6 percent, qualify for reduced meals.
But it's those who do not qualify for free meals who are racking up the debt.
According to Logan, at the end of June, the outstanding meal charges were $26,692. The outstanding charges range from five cents to $768, with the average being $55.
"Unpaid charges do not disappear — they carry forward each year," she pointed out.
A year ago, the outstanding meal charges were $16,729, and the district collected $1,468 prior to school starting that September.
On June 30, 2015, the outstanding meal charges were $8,400, and they collected $1,200 prior to school starting that September.
Because the meals programs are federal programs, the district must follow the rules of those programs, Logan explained. If students do not qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the district must charge for those meals. Bad debts are not allowable under federal programs.
House Bill 3454, known as the "lunch shaming" bill, has been sent to Gov. Kate Brown for her signature. It requires Oregon schools to provide lunch to all students, regardless of their ability to pay.
"The lunch shaming bill does not change our practice," Logan said. "We have been feeding kids even if they owe money, while making an effort not to shame them, even before the new law."
"We feed them regardless," Rudy added. "It's a school policy. The state and the federal government allow each school district to make that choice, and we have just decided that we have to feed the kids."
But, the district is still trying to collect what is due.
"Over the past two years, we have intensified our collection efforts by increasing the frequency and type of communication and providing multiple options for payment," Logan said.
Rudy said she has elementary school teachers send weekly notices home with students who owe lunch money. The district office sends out monthly reminders to all families with meal debt.
They also implemented a new online system that allows parents/guardians to set up email reminders for low balances at whatever dollar threshold they choose.
Families can access an online payment portal on the school district website under the Parent Resources tab and the Cafeteria Resources link.
The district now accepts credit card payments at the district office, as well as cash or checks at the district office or any of the schools.
"We make payment arrangements," Rudy pointed out. "We just want people to try, to make an effort."
Logan said the district will be further defining its collection practices to include sending accounts to a collection agency. At the end of the school year, if student meal balances are more than $200 and they haven't made an effort to arrange a payment plan and make regular payments, then the district will send them to a collection agency.
"It's going to reflect on your credit report," Rudy said.