Columbia schools consider collection agencies for lunch money debt

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COLUMBIA - The Columbia Public School system lunch program is about $100,000 in debt. The school board is looking into using collection agencies as a possible solution to the growing debt. 

Nutrition Services Director Laina Fullum said the debt is due in part to needy families having a difficult time making ends meet, and one of the first things to be neglected is school lunches. CPS still feeds children regardless of the fact that it is accumulating debt. 

She said another issue is parents filling out the free and reduced meal plan application because it is complicated, and parents may not know that the application must get filled out every year. She also said some families may not qualify for a free and reduced meal plan but still have trouble paying for lunches. 

The collection agency would help follow up with parents on behalf of Columbia Public Schools. Fullum said the department would want the collection agency to be respectful because they do not want to alienate their students. Collection agencies would give families multiple options such as payment plans. 

"It's about working with their customers making sure that they understand what their options are," Fullum said.

MASSP Executive Director Phil Lewis said many schools are beginning to sub-contract things such as buses and custodial staff. 

"That is their job to just collect money, and they do that for a living so they have a pretty good idea of what techniques to use and usually are a bit more successful than schools who don't have that kind of person who's trained to do that," Lewis said.

One Columbia resident said he is not on board with the proposed collection agency plan. 

"Let's consider other options. Let's think about this a little bit longer. I don't think a collection agency is the way to go," David Arrant said.  

Fullum said the large debt makes the lunch department struggle financially and even more so now with a new set of expensive regulations that call for healthier food options served with school lunches. It is part of the Child Nutrition Reauthorization which requires all grains to be whole-grain, lower sodium content, lower fat content, a cap on calories, a quota of the amount of dark-green vegetables served each week, and a quota of orange and red vegetables. 

Fullum said the Child Nutrition Reauthorization makes lunches more expensive for the schools to produce, and she said children are not eating them. 

"Before it was optional for a student to take a fruit or a vegetable with all of their meals, but now it is required, and a lot of them are just throwing them away," Fullum said. 

"Lunch programs are always under a lot of scrutiny. Simply because you need to feed as many kids as you possibly can, and it's difficult to feed that many kids on a small budget, and so as a result I think a lot of school districts break even or go into debt," Lewis said. 

Fullum said CPS is working to fix the debt by streamlining its process over the past three years by increasing efficiency and trying to get a customer base back.

"We are trying to find products that students like and will eat because once we alienate our student population from the meals that we are serving, it's hard to get them back," Fullum said. 

She said if there is not a solution soon, the quality of the lunch product may eventually have to be compromised.