A school lunch served at Englewood Elementary School on May 20, 2019. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem-Keizer families owe the school district nearly half a million dollars for unpaid school breakfasts and lunches, most of it accumulated since a 2017 state law change required districts to feed all students even if they can’t or don’t pay.

As of Jan. 6, students across the district have charged $445,559 in unpaid meals, school district data obtained by Salem Reporter shows. That’s about $61 for each of the more than 7,200 students who owe.

The issue has put school districts in a bind, caught between a desire to feed all students to ensure they’re able to learn and a growing pile of debt that’s unlikely to be paid.

“Food should not be a barrier to a student’s education,” said Mike Wolfe, Salem-Keizer’s chief operations officer.

But he said the amount was beyond what district officials anticipated. At the end of the 2018 school year, Salem-Keizer families owed $213,000 for school meals. That has since more than doubled.

“We really hadn’t anticipated the level of increase,” he said.

Schools will likely get some relief next fall through a state-funded expansion of Oregon’s free lunch program. Under the expansion, the family income that justifies a free lunch is going up. An income of $75,000 per year for a family of four qualifies students for free meals.

That means some families who previously didn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch now will. Wolfe said he expects that will help cut down on the debt somewhat, but he’s not sure how much.

“We’re hopeful. We’d certainly like to see the trend head in the other direction,” he said.

Seven in 10 Salem-Keizer students already qualify for free or reduced lunch.

For those who don’t, parents deposit money in a student account that’s charged as the student eats a meal: $2.60 for lunch in elementary school, and $3 in middle and high school.

The debt piles up as students with no money in their account continue to charge meals.

It stays with a student from kindergarten through graduation unless paid off. If a senior graduates still owing for lunches, the district erases the lunch debt, Wolfe said.

Nearly all the debt has accumulated in just a few years, since a 2017 state law stopped schools from limiting unpaid meal charges.

Under that law, schools can only remind families about unpaid lunch balances and encourage them to sign up for free lunch if they qualify. They can’t stop serving kids or provide a lower-cost meal like a sandwich, a practice often referred to as “lunch shaming.”

In an August 2017 letter to Oregon school districts, Salam Noor, then the state’s deputy of public instruction, outlined several “shaming” practices the law was intended to address.

Those included “requiring that the student perform chores or work in exchange for a meal, providing the student with a less desirable alternate meal (commonly referred to as the “cheese sandwich of shame”), marking the student’s hand with a marker or stamp, affixing a band to the student’s wrist, or, if the student has already gone through the lunch line and received a meal, taking the meal away from the student at the point-of-service and throwing it into the trash.”

“I do think this was an unintended consequence of a really good intent,” Wolfe said. “Sometimes it happens that way.”

Salem-Keizer is not alone in seeing growing debt. The Oregon Association of School Business Officials surveyed school districts at the end of 2018 and found three dozen  districts had accumulated more than $1.3 million in unpaid lunch balances.

Before the change, Salem-Keizer stopped letting students charge meals after five unpaid meals, so a students’ unpaid balance rarely rose above $12, according to district spokeswoman Lillian Govus.

Students eat breakfast in September 2019 at Bush Elementary School. The school is among more than 20 in Salem-Keizer where all students get free lunch and breakfast. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Lunch debt varies among local schools. About half of Salem-Keizer kids attend a school where breakfast and lunch are free for all students because the school’s poverty rate is high. Those schools typically record little or no meal debt, though a student may come to the school owing money from another school.

The schools with the highest owed per student fall somewhat in the middle, with about half the student body living in poverty. At $35 per student, Cummings Elementary School in Keizer has the highest per capita debt, about $15,000 total.

South Salem and McNary high schools are next, averaging about $26 in debt per student. Families at those schools owe a total of about $48,000 and $50,000, respectively.

There are likely several categories of families that aren’t paying for lunches, Wolfe said: those who might qualify for free or reduced lunch but haven’t filled out paperwork, those who earn too much to get free lunch but struggle to pay at school and those who simply choose not to pay knowing the district has no way of enforcing the cost.

Wolfe said the district doesn’t know which group most students fall into.

Schools work with students and families to help them fill out free and reduced lunch paperwork where they qualify, Govus said. Some immigrant families won’t fill out the forms for fear their personal information might end up with a federal agency, she said.

And schools can do little for families who don’t qualify for free lunches. Wolfe said district workers try to get creative at the end of the school year, offering discounts for families to settle their balance.

Around the country, some celebrities, companies or private citizens have donated or mounted fundraising campaigns to pay off such debt, often in districts with “lunch shaming” policies.

 No celebrity or philanthropist has stepped up to pay off the local debt, Wolfe said, though it’s something the district would accept. The meal cost, when left unpaid, is covered out of the district’s general fund, which pays salaries for teachers and other school employees.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.