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Time to Tackle School Meal Debt

Lisa Good, MBA | Vice President of Business Development 

Reading Time: 2 minutes 

As the countdown to summer break begins, it is again time to prepare your child nutrition programs for the school year’s end. Addressing school meal debt stands out as one of the looming unchecked boxes on your to-do list. Unfortunately, school meal debt continues to hinder educational institutions nationwide. As the academic year draws to a close, it becomes imperative to tackle this challenge effectively. 

All school food authorities (SFAs) are federally mandated to establish, maintain, and facilitate a meal debt policy. However, states are left with much discretion in deciding such a policy’s minimum and maximum standards. Understanding your state’s requirements is an essential first step. Good practice urges a well-rounded policy to, in general, encompass three main points: 

  1. Prioritize providing optimal nutrition to all students. 
  1. Minimize the stigma associated with insufficient funds. 
  1. Safeguard the financial integrity of nonprofit school foodservice account (NSFSA). 

This article will explore strategies for working with stakeholders, end-of-school-year ideas to ease the burden, and effective methods for collecting funds. 

Seek Stakeholder Input 

Involving stakeholder input from administrators, child nutrition program professionals, school counselors, and board members in the policy development and maintenance process ensures a comprehensive exploration of ideas. It can also provide robust enforcement mechanisms the child nutrition director finds outside their scope. 


Additionally, these stakeholders must fully understand the potential consequences of their suggestions. A rigid policy, providing no meals or substitute meals for students lacking funds, may inadvertently promote negative stigma. A policy too lenient or without adequate debt collection measures might sacrifice the NSFSA’s financial stability. Possibly most importantly, stakeholders must understand that once a debt is deemed uncollectable and transferred to bad debt, a source other than the NSFSA must foot the bill. 

Pro Tips to Ease the Burden 

Offer Payment Plans: Collaborate with families to devise flexible payment plans that alleviate financial strain while ensuring students receive nutritious meals. 

Fundraising Events: Engage students, parents, teachers, and community members in fundraising initiatives such as bake sales, car washes, or fun runs to clear school meal debt. 

End-of-Year Donations: Encourage families to contribute unused meal funds or make monetary donations to reduce meal debt. Utilize online platforms for secure donations and send out letters to seniors outlining options to spend down accounts or donate unused funds

Collecting Funds 

Direct Communication 

  • Maintain transparent communication with families regarding meal debt balances with regular reminders via email, phone calls, or letters. Emphasize the importance of handling outstanding balances to support the school’s meal program by including vocabulary such as:
    • “We greatly appreciate your prompt effort in keeping your student’s account(s) current, as even small unpaid negative balances cumulatively burden our school nutrition programs.” 

In-Person and Online Payment Systems 

  • To facilitate convenient debt settlement, provide guidance to households on various payment options, including in-person and online systems. 


  • Ensure meticulous recordkeeping of collection efforts in accordance with the meal debt policy. Do so by documenting evidence of collection efforts, timelines, financial records, and efforts to restore debt with non-Federal funds. 


Addressing school meal debt requires proactive measures, collaboration, and stakeholder involvement. By implementing robust strategies, embracing end-of-school-year initiatives, and adopting competent collection methods, SFAs can ensure all students have access to nutritious meals without facing financial barriers. Together, through cooperation and targeted action, we can efficiently manage school meal debt and create a supportive environment where every student thrives. 


If you’ve enjoyed this article, why not take a moment to follow i3 Education on social? We provide priceless content regarding K-12 nutrition program operations and can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. 


Lisa is the Vice President of Business Development for i3 Education, with over fifteen years of experience in K-12 nutrition. 

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