FCPS to explore options for managing ballooning student ‘meal debt’

FCPS Central Office in Merrifield (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Fairfax County Public Schools is seeking a solution to its ballooning student meal debt, which soared over the past year.

On Tuesday (Feb. 20), Fairfax County School Board members directed Superintendent Michelle Reid to get them more information on what options are available to prevent FCPS students from accumulating more debt due to their inability to pay for meals.

“So, in my view, we need to do some work to…put policies or procedures in place that, A) prevent the ballooning of this debt going forward, and B) expand access to lunches for kids, so we can feed more children and deter the potential practice — that may or may not be occurring — of holding children liable for the debt,” At-large member Kyle McDaniel said during the work session.

As of 2022, over one-third of FCPS students (34%) qualify for free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, but FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leigh Burden said parents might not have realized that they needed to reapply after the end of a universal free school lunch program introduced during the pandemic.

The federal relief funds that paid for that program, which enabled all students to eat for free, ran out on July 1, 2022. FCPS reported an increase in students eating school food while the program was in effect.

Although schools are supposed to send out newsletters to parents with information about meal debt and free or reduced lunches, Burden recognized that families may be unaware of their accumulating balance.

She also emphasized that in some cases, families barely exceed the eligibility threshold for free lunches, making it difficult for them to clear their debt.

“So, we think those two things combined have contributed to the student debt rising so dramatically over the last two or three years,” she told the board during the work session.

About one-fourth of FCPS schools qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides free lunch and breakfast to all students attending low-income area schools.

But elsewhere, students only qualify for free meals if their family earns less than 130% of the poverty level. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price meals.

For grades K-12, breakfast costs $1.75. Lunch is $3.25 for elementary schools, and $3.50 for middle and high school students.

Burden notes that meal debt has been steadily rising since she was hired six years ago. However, in the last few years, the debt has “skyrocketed” across the entire school system, she said.

“During the years that all meals were free, we were serving 160,000 meals a day, whereas now, we’re back to about 110,000 [meals],” Burden said. “I mean, think about that: 50,000 students more were eating each day who now aren’t.”

As of this week, Burden said student meal debt at FCPS hovered around $1.1 million. In mid-January 2023, FCPS reported $708,140 in meal debt, and previous year-end balances were around $101,000 for the 2021-2022 academic year, $153,000 in 2020-2021, $212,000 in 2019-2020 and $214,000 in 2018-2019.

Board members recommended that the superintendent’s office thoroughly examine state and federal policies and consider organizing fundraising and awareness campaigns to help manage the debt.

They also suggested setting a limit on how many meals students can purchase each day to prevent families from accumulating too much debt.

“I believe that given the technology and the world we live in today, we should be able to address that,” Springfield District representative Sandy Anderson said during the work session. “If parents want to opt their children out of the ability to get a lunch or getting breakfast because they get fed at home. I mean, I think that’s some of our burden.”

Mason District representative Ricardy Anderson agreed with the concern about letting students buy too many snacks, adding that her own child has, on several occasions, bought food they didn’t need.

However, she cautioned that for some students, the one or two meals they get at school may be the only meals they receive all day.

“So, if there was a way to control the snacks, that, I’ll be in support of,” Anderson said. “I just don’t want us to lose track of the fact that we have some kids who they are coming to our schools and those are the only consistent and reliable meals that they get, and sometimes they want two. But it’s not because of being wasteful or being gluttonous. It’s because they’re hungry.”

State law prohibits schools from making students throw away food if they can’t pay for a meal or have meal debt. Students also can’t be stopped from joining in extracurricular activities because of meal debt. Schools can receive donations to help clear or reduce meal debt.

FCPS can’t use its operating fund to immediately “write off” the debt, Burden explained.

Instead, school board members requested that the superintendent’s office provide other options for paying off the debt and stopping its growth before the 2024-2025 school year, which starts in August.

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