Quickly approaches the end of another school year. Students, faculty, and staff alike are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel; three months of summer vacation. Diligence for any director is imperative to make sure every box is getting checked, and unpaid meal debt can often seem like one of the most procrastinated checkmarks to place. Here’s a quick and easy-to-follow guide to quickly eliminate that looming meal debt.
Preparing to tackle unpaid meal debt is imperative. An actionable plan is what will make this process not only feasible but as painless as possible. An early step should be scheduling time to discuss the situation with administration. It wouldn’t be surprising if they have little to no knowledge of the current status of unpaid meal debt within the district. Allowing them to be blindsided at fiscal year closing is probably not the most professional way to handle this issue. Have a frank discussion regarding the current debt and the steps your current policy states you have already or will soon complete.
Additionally, brainstorm with administration regarding ideas for collecting this debt or how to make the process more efficient. For example, the district most likely already has a plan for contacting households to collect other student debt this time of year, such as tuition (for private schools), assigned fees, etc. Adding meal debt to these debt-collecting communication efforts is only commonsensical.
Even if you’re able to coordinate with administration on notifying households of meal debt on a joint statement of account being sent to households, your policy should have steps that your school nutrition program will take throughout the year in attempts to collect. You may want to add an end-of-year process as well.
At the risk of sounding dated, the ordinary postal system, or “snail mail,” remains an effective method of communication. An organized campaign of regular correspondence with households, including the statement of balance and reminder steps of how to add funds, is a cornerstone practice of eliminating meal debt. Utilizing i3’s PaySchools reporting tools makes generating customized negative balance letters simple. Sending letters at regular intervals should make a drastic impact on reducing meal debt.
All businesses, including schools, love email, as it can significantly reduce postage fees, especially for frequent communication in larger districts. An email campaign designed with custom parameters is a great way to get households to take action. Not only can i3 Education’s software automatically generate and send negative balance bulk emails similar to that of postal letter generation noted above, but districts additionally can customize emails to be sent to households when a balance reaches a set low threshold, with follow-up emails continuing to be sent at a determined frequency should that debt linger. Of course, a bonus feature of using email in conjunction with postal delivery is the ability to use hyperlinks within the email template. Having a link in that communication that leads directly to the account for funding can drastically increase immediate action being taken.
Having food on the service line just before the bell rings, staff in place with ready serving utensils, and backup food pans in warmers near the line can be an enormous timesaver!
Many districts have implemented a point-of-sale (POS) system into their operations, most of which will use biometric/barcode scanners or pin pads for students to self-identify and bring up their accounts. Software, such as i3 Education’s PaySchools, allows students to do this before reaching the cashier in the system’s queue. Once one student’s transaction is complete, the next student’s account appears automatically on the screen. Moving your operation’s pin pad or scanner two or three spots before the student reaches the cashier can save seconds on each transaction.
Some POS software, like PaySchools, also allows for multiple pin pads and scanners attached to a single terminal while still accurately populating and sequencing that digital queue of students in line. If your cashier is skillful and swift, your operation could run lines on each side of a single cashier, maximizing efficiency.
It’s imperative to remember depending on your district’s elected handling of the transfer of delinquent debt to bad debt, it may be unallowable for a school district’s federally funded nutrition program account to carry over or absorb meal debt from year to year. Students’ negative accounts must be brought to zero balance and reimbursed annually from an outside source. As discussed in an i3 article, The Season of Giving: How to Collect Donations During the Holidays, charitable donations continue to be the most significant contributor to reducing unpaid meal debt. Again, it is highly suggested that you work with administration before running a charitable appeal for outstanding meal debt, but if they’re agreeable to the idea, advanced fees features within i3 Education’s software suite make the collection of donations for any cause almost effortless for all involved, as donors have the ability for guest transactions without the need to create an account, and treasurers can easily track these donations with simple, yet functional general ledger coding.
As you engage in end-of-year collection of meal debt, remember that any actions taken by the district to balance accounts must be detailed within the policy. Taking a few moments each year to review your policy’s actionable steps and adding new actions being taken while discarding any outdated information can save exorbitant time being dedicated later.
As effective as all the previously named strategies can be when executed properly, there is one action that must not be taken; shaming. Extensively detailed in Unpaid Meal Debt: The Roots of Lunch Shaming, a key takeaway from the article is that school nutrition staff should refrain from directly communicating with a student regarding their meal debt. All efforts to collect should always be directed to the household.
Matthew is a registered dietitian nutritionist and freelance content provider for i3 Education, with over a decade of experience in K-12 nutrition.