Debt collectors hired to track down Rhode Island families with unpaid school lunch bills

Debt collectors have been hired at two Rhode Island school districts to chase down unpaid bills owed by families of students.

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The Cumberland School District has agreed to bring in F.H. Cann & Associates to help settle outstanding balances, according to the Boston Globe.

School committee chair Paul DiModica confirmed to FOX Business the debts are around $60,000 as of this year. The balances racked up after the school ended its substitute lunch program two years ago, at which time debts were only about $9,000. That decision was allegedly made to prevent “lunch shaming.”

"Our last resort was to hire a collection agency to pursue the debt. A representative of the collection agency will be coming in to meet with our superintendent and business manager to coordinate the list of names to pursue," he said. "The USDA requires us to attempt to collect the overdue money. They don't say how to collect it but that an attempt must be made."

Last year, the Cranston, Rhode Island, school district hired a private debt collection firm after it wrote off nearly $100,000 in unpaid lunch bills between 2016 and 2018, according to the Associated Press. The decision was reportedly made after the school’s own debt collection efforts were unsuccessful.

According to the news agency, the trouble arose as children overdrew from lunch accounts funded by their parents.

Representatives from neither school district immediately returned FOX Business’ request for comment.

Meanwhile, another Rhode Island school district – in Warwick – announced a policy in May that would prevent students with dues from eating hot food in the cafeteria. They would be provided “sun butter and jelly” sandwiches until their payments were settled.

The school district was owed $77,000, according to NPR.

However, Chobani eventually stepped in to take care of some of the school’s bill in order to ensure children “have access to natural, nutritious & delicious food.”

The company also paid off more than $85,000 worth of lunch debt at an Idaho school district earlier this month.


Mounting school lunch debts are becoming a problem at districts across the country. According to data from the School Nutrition Association released in 2018, more than 75 percent of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016 to 2017 school year. More than 40 percent said students without adequate funds increased during the time period.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented policies that required school districts to inform parents about school lunch debts at the outset of the academic year. Under the National School Lunch Program, some low-income families are given a reprieve from paying for school lunches, and others are offered discounted meals.