9 Investigates

9 Investigates: School lunch debt and its impact on students

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Students' lunch debt in county schools is growing, becoming a serious concern that affects families and schools.

"It's very embarrassing because kids are not nice. And you feel like everybody looked down on you for it.  It's painful," said Marian Chaney as she remembers lunchtime in her school cafeteria.

Chaney said she was neglected as a child, that she didn't get lunch money, but didn't qualify for free lunch. She still got fed, but the negative balance grew, and her family never paid it off.

"It causes a lot of anxiety because you go up to the front and they ask you to pay and you don't have the money and you feel embarrassed because also, all of your classmates are right behind you," Chaney said.

Last school year, CMS had a lunch debt of $388,937. That's up more than $100,000 from the previous year, when it was $282,965.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board member Margaret Marshall told Channel 9 it's a serious concern and the increase has been a puzzlement.

She said the district is pouring through data to figure out what's behind the jump. And it's working hard to get qualified families signed up for free and reduced lunch.

"No one wants lack of food to be a barrier to academic success," Marshall said. "And we know that children, families sometimes have a hard time paying for lunches."

The CMS district is far from alone in this struggle.

Union County Public Schools saw a big jump from $154,502 two school years ago to $245,418 last year.  A representative told Channel 9 they've seen a significant drop in applications for free and reduced lunch.

Cabarrus County Schools owed about $11,000 in lunch debt last school year and the year prior.

In Fort Mill Schools, the debt was $10,289 last school year. A district representative said they've not seen an increase.

But no matter the amount, unpaid debt becomes the districts' responsibility.

"It's kind of a catch 22 for the schools and for the parents," Vicki Lipscomb told Channel 9. She's with the nonprofit Child Nutrition Program.

She said getting that free or reduced lunch qualification can be a challenge.

"Frequently, maybe the paperwork isn't correct, or something's not turned in or they fall through the cracks. We also hear of families that are afraid to turn in their income forms even in our program, because they're concerned about their immigration status."

And some families don't qualify but still can't afford to pay.

"I think the question of what is a living wage in this community is pretty much front and center," Marshall said. "So is there a gap that folks can't meet? So we're again looking at a number of solutions to this and working with families on a case-by-case basis to solve the problem."

Meanwhile, schools are still feeding students.

In Fort Mill, and Union and Cabarrus counties, all students are fed regardless of their ability to pay, but depending on the negative balance, some students get what's known as an alternate meal, which still includes an entree or sandwich, fruit and milk.

In CMS, regardless of free or reduced meal status, all students can get free breakfast. Elementary and middle schoolers get the same lunch, regardless of ability to pay.

But high school students aren't allowed to carry a negative balance, so they just don't get lunch if they can't pay.

"It hurts kids, it hurts them to go through this," Chaney told Channel 9.

All districts said they work to educate families about free and reduced lunch options and let them know when they have a negative balance.

"It's a larger community conversation," Marshall said. "I think as a system, we've got to look broadly and see if we can come up with some answers."

For Cabarrus County families, here is a link to their policy on school lunch.

A representative for Cabarrus County Schools said the district has been fortunate to have individuals and organizations make donations to cover the account balances of students.

Union County families, click here.

Union County Schools says anyone who wants to donate to lunch debt in Union County can visit this link.

Here's a link to the CMS nutrition information.

A CMS representative said donations can be made to cover unpaid lunch balances through the CMS Foundation, a 501(c)(3) that supports CMS.

For Fort Mill families, click here.

A group of Fort Mill High School alumni called the 'Ol School Crowd' have made it their mission to help pay off student lunch debt. In the past, they've paid out of their own pockets, but are now raising money to help even more students.

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