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Bethlehem schools may move to free lunches as families struggle

Students and parents in East Penn School District recently Students sold T-shirts showing the district’s service dog, a beagle named Mario, to raise money to help pay for school lunches. (Contributed photo)

BETHLEHEM -- Parents in many area school districts are back to buying their childrens’ school lunches after Congress recently ended pandemic-era universal free school meals.

And because of price increases in food and housing costs, some families are struggling to pay those lunch bills.

Marissa Quinn, who has a child at Wescosville Elementary School in the East Penn School District and is the school’s community service club advisor, just finished a fundraiser with students to help pay off the school’s outstanding $514.85 school lunch debt.

Students sold T-shirts showing the district’s service dog, a beagle named Mario.

“With the lunches being paid for for the last two years, I knew it would be an issue,” Quinn said. “Not just in our district, but all over.”

Many students are starting the academic year with school lunch debt. As of Aug. 4, Bethlehem Area School District had more than 2,400 students with negative balances. The highest negative account balance at the end of last month totaled $1,061.

The district has $138,400 dollars in total school lunch debt.

Superintendent Joseph Roy said collecting on the unpaid debt is hard.

“We don’t have a lot of leverage and I’ve not really wanted to, you know, put it into collections,” Roy said.

Giving every child a free lunch may be an option.

'Lunch shaming' or free meals

'Lunch shaming' or free meals

In 2019, state lawmakers reinstated a so-called “lunch shaming” policy that lets districts give students a cold meal if they have more than $50 in lunch debt. But that also means they continue to accrue additional debt.

School districts also can use collection agencies and exclude students from school activities as a means of recovering payment.

Bethlehem has about 14,000 students and more than half of them currently qualify for free or reduced lunches.

Roy said that because Bethlehem is a high-poverty school district, it could qualify to give all students free lunch. But he said there's been concerned in the past about taking a financial hit by doing that. He said the cost of the providing the meals has been greater than the federal government reimbursement amount.

“We’re going to revisit it,” he said. “We’re looking to replace our recently retired [chief financial officer] and I think when we have the new CFO in place, one of the early tasks I’m going to have her or him to do is kind of evaluate that again.”

Even those who earn more struggle

Quinn worked with Melissa Fillman on the fundraiser for Wescosville Elementary. Fillman founded Kindness in Magic, a local nonprofit she started in 2018 after her discovering her 6-year-old daughter was helping a fellow student pay for lunch.

There are not many charities like Kindness is Magic that will help with school lunch debt. Fillman said that’s because there’s a stigma.

A family of four must make $36,000 or less to qualify for free lunches. Many of the families affected most by lunch debt make more, but still struggle to make ends meet.

Fillman said she’s happy that Bethlehem Schools will reconsider whether to offer universal free school lunches, which is how Allentown School District currently operates.

“I feel like every child really should be given a warm meal during the school day without any recourse because they’re financially able to pay,” she said.