The old saying goes, "There is no such thing as a free lunch," and area school districts are finding this out the hard way as they struggle with debt from unpaid school lunches.
The Waterloo School District is more than $15,000 in the red, with almost 15 percent of students not paying for their lunches. Last year the Dubuque School District was less than $4000 in debt. Iowa City's lunch program is currently almost $19,000 behind with 1600 negative accounts. Cedar Rapids Schools is $11,000 in the red with 2,300 students with negative balances.
School lunches are healthier and more nutritious than ever before, but those meals come with a price. The average school lunch costs around $2.50 in Iowa. At Waterloo Schools it varies between $2.20 and $2.30 and not everyone is paying their share.
"The lunch fund is approximately $15,400 in the red," said Waterloo Spokesperson Sharon Miller.
Miller also says the Waterloo School Board has to take into account the cost of the food, labor, and the number of meals served versus free and reduced meals when setting the price. Miller says Waterloo has one of the highest rates in the state for those eligible for free and reduced lunches, but not everyone who is eligible is applying.
"We have to manage our lunch account responsibly because we're responsible for feeding over 10,000 students so it's a balance of managing that account responsibly for the good of all the kids and trying to make sure that no child is hungry during the school day," said Miller.
At Waterloo Schools, students are given a grace period. At the elementary schools, students are given five lunches after they reach a negative balance. At the middles schools, students are give three lunches, and at the high school they are only given two. After that those students will only receive a cheese sandwich and carton of milk.
"That provides us with a low cost safety net. We know that kids can't learn if they're hungry so one of our priorities is to try to keep kids from being hungry during the school day," said Miller.
The policy of what to do when kids don't have the money varies for each school. In Iowa City, high school students who pay full price and reach a negative balance are no longer served lunch, but elementary students are served no matter what.
In Dubuque parents are notified when their child reaches a negative balance. Like Waterloo, the students are then only served a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk.
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