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CMS Warns Students Can't Run Up Cafeteria Debt - But There Are Exceptions

The lunchroom at Mallard Creek High prepares for the first day of school.

Thirty-one days into the school year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is warning families that their kids have to have lunch money unless they've qualified for free meals.

Jessy Milicevic is one of the parents who got an automated call Monday. It warned that as of Tuesday students "will not be allowed to go into the negative to purchase food" — that is, to eat now with the promise to pay later.

A CMS spokesperson says the policy applies only to high school students, but the call was enough to cause Milicevic concern.

Milicevic has three children in CMS, and she packs their lunch to save money. She worried about what the warning meant for her family.

"What if I’m not able to pack their lunch that day?" she asked. "What if I forget, or we’re running behind and they go to school and they don’t have any money? Are my kids going to get turned away?"

But she was even more concerned about what the no-debt policy might mean for families in financial distress.

"How are they supposed to go to school if they spent the night in their car, and maybe they go to school and their shoes are worn out and their backpack is old?" Milicevic said. "They're already feeling insecure about that, and then they can't get lunch?"

She’d been reading about similar situations across the country – stories about kids who have been denied lunches, provided with peanut butter sandwiches, and even shut out of  graduation ceremonies if they had unpaid lunch debt.

The spate of coverage stems from a 2017 federal requirement that school districts come up with policies for dealing with school lunch debt. It can add up to big money. In CMS, a district with almost 150,000 students, unpaid meals cost the district almost $389,000 last school year – a 37% increase over the previous year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture spends about $14 billion a year paying for meals for students who fall below family income guidelines. That helps for those who qualify or who attend schools where poverty levels are high enough that the government provides free lunch and breakfast for everyone — no application needed.

CMS has 68 of those schools this year, out of 175 total. But changes in school poverty levels means some schools that used to qualify no longer do. And that, CMS says, is why the district has been barraging those families with letters, emails and calls since early August, reminding them to apply for aid if they need help. Reminders also went to new students, and to families who had qualified for aid last year but hadn’t applied this year.

Tuesday was the application deadline, so Monday’s call was an urgent last-minute reminder, says CMS spokeswoman Yaviri Escalera.

She says the “no money, no meal” policy actually applies only to high school students. Younger students will get a meal, even if they don’t qualify for aid and don’t have money — and yes, that goes into debt that CMS has to try to collect.

Escalera reports that Monday’s call prompted 600 online applications for lunch subsidies – all, she says, processed Tuesday morning in time for lunch.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.