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Denying students lunch part of new Harrisonville School District approach for parents who don’t pay

HARRISONVILLE, Mo. -- Parents behind on school lunch payments are taking a bite out of the Harrisonville School District budget. The Harrisonville School Board took a hard line on the issue last week and enacted new procedures.

The days of cash in cafeterias are long gone. Now schools rely on student accounts and parents to properly fund them.

The district says at the start of the 2014 school year, the last time the district had such a policy, five families were at least $20 behind on their payments. That number has ballooned to 400 families this year, leaving the district more than $23,000 in debt.

“A few doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, but you get a whole bunch of them and that does,” Harrisonville grandparent Rick Wilber said.

Starting next week the district will go back to their pre-2014 procedures to try to get parents to pay. As soon as balances get in the negative, parents will get weekly calls and emails. If students are $11 or more in debt, they will get alternative lunches, a sunbutter and jelly sandwich or cheese sandwich, fruit, veggie and milk.

Once the debt reaches $30 parents will be warned of the $40 cutoff, at which point students accounts can be blocked, and the child no longer allowed to get a school lunch.

It’s a tougher stance than nearby Lee’s Summit. According to the student handbook, the biggest form of deterrence beyond alternative lunches is denying students in debt from getting extra a-la-carte items.

“Hopefully the school will make arrangements for a payment plan if they are substantially behind, but I don’t think the kids should be completely cut off,” Ellen Lake said.

Denying a child lunch is a last resort maneuver which would require several approvals. Asst. Superintendent Dan Erholtz says despite it being an option in the new policy, he doesn't foresee it happening.

41 percent of Harrisonville’s 2,372 students are on free or reduced lunch, though district officials believe many more may qualify. They are sending home applications this week, ahead of the changes that go into effect Feb. 1.

USDA guidelines require every school district to take up the issue and develop policies on recouping school lunch debt by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

A School Nutrition Association 2016 survey of nearly 1,000 school meal program operators nationwide found that about three-quarters of school districts had an unpaid student meal debt at the end of last school year, an increase from 70.8 percent of districts reporting debt in 2014.