Unpaid lunch bills mounting

By Liliana Castillo: CNJ staff writer

While bigger districts with bigger deficits are fighting the unpaid lunch bill battle with cheese sandwiches, Clovis and Portales schools are still in the trenches making phone calls and sending home statements.

School districts across the state have seen a rise in unpaid lunch bills with the economic downturn.

Portales Municipal Schools Superintendent Randy Fowler said the issue isn’t a new one.

“We always have some (unpaid bills),” he said. “It has not been a major problem in our district, but it is something we have to work at constantly.”

Clovis Municipal Schools’ child nutrition supervisor Paul Kline said this year’s bills are showing an increase from last year.

“Probably because of the economy in general, this year seems a little tougher than last year,” he said. “It’s an issue because we are self-supporting based on the funds we receive from the government.”

Clovis Municipal Schools serve 9,700 meals a day, including breakfast and lunch, according to Kline.

Kline said the district goes through several steps before going to the cheese sandwich policy, where the child is given a cold entree instead of a hot one. After a student is verbally warned, notices and letters are sent home. If that doesn’t get a response, Kline said, they make a call the parents.

Portales schools go by a similar system.

“We’re real sensitive to the student. Giving them a cheese sandwich is something that’s real hard for us to do. We try to avoid it as much as possible. It’s not their fault,” Kline said.

Portales Schools food service director Shirley Chatterton said 150 students in the district have unpaid bills.

“None of them are substantial,” she said. “We’re lucky we don’t have a huge problem with it.”

Chatterton said the district has not denied a student a meal in the eight years she’s been with the district.

“The cheese sandwich policy doesn’t make sense to me personally,” she said. “A district that does that is still out the expense of the meal and labor. In a way, it’s singling them out.”

Chatterton said there has been some discussion nationally to get rid of the reduced lunch price, which cuts the cost of lunch from about two dollars to 40 cents. She said having only free and paid options would relieve some of the issue because most of the people who fall in the reduced category would be moved into free.

“A lot of times those that are falling into the reduced are struggling. They just don’t have it. If we move some of those families into the free lunches, they’ll receive the benefit,” she said.

Kline said changing the classifications would help the families and the district. The more families that qualify for free lunch, the more money the school district receives from the United States Department of Agriculture.

“We want people to fill out these applications. It’s beneficial to the district and everyone in general,” he said.