With more than $200,000 in school lunch debt, who foots the bill?


NEW HANOVER COUNTY (WWAY) — As another school year comes to an end, one school district has nearly $90,000 in unpaid school lunches. And that’s not the only district with a big tab.

In New Hanover County alone, there is $88,000 in unpaid school lunches. Although some of that may be an oversight on the part of parents, some is due to families who cannot afford meals.

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21 schools in New Hanover County are part of a federal program called Community Eligibility Provision or CEP, which provides meals to all students at no cost.

At other schools, families that cannot afford meals must apply for the Free and Reduced Meals program. If they do not, costs from unpaid lunches can fall back onto the school district.

“We do encourage principals to help collect the money, on unpaid meal charges, but eventually it does fall on the finance department,” says Imer Smith, Director of Childhood Nutrition for New Hanover County Schools.

Smith says the district encourages families in need to apply for the program.
But even if they don’t, board policy prevents the schools from denying a child a meal. And that’s where costs can begin to add up.

“Currently we’re at $88,000 of unpaid meal charges,” said Smith.

If a portion of those unpaid charges are coming from families who simply can’t afford to pay for the food, a summer without school meals could be bleak, if not for summer food programs.

“There are resources that are sponsored by New Hanover County Schools and others, where kids can go for breakfast, lunch and in some cases, dinner,” said Beth Gaglione, Branch Director for the Food Bank of Eastern and Central North Carolina.

Taking a look at other districts across our area, the unpaid cafeteria balances in both Brunswick and Pender counties are just over $57,000 each.

Bladen, Columbus, and Whiteville schools are part of the CEP program, which means all students receive free meals.

As far as summer food programs go, the Food Bank’s Kids Summer Meals program starts Monday.

Nourish NC will also provide 50 lbs of food to 1,000 in New Hanover County.

New Hanover County Schools’ summer food program starts at the end of the month. You don’t need to enroll, you can simply show up.