Palo Alto Unified School District school lunch debt could reach over $60,000 by the end of the year, according to an email sent out by the district to all parents.
The California Education Code Section 49550 requires all schools to provide a nutritionally adequate lunch for free or at a discounted price for eligible students.
According to the email, this code, as well as others, has been put in place to combat “lunch-shaming,” in which schools used to give students who were unable to pay an alternate meal or no meal at all.
These students are now covered by federally subsidized lunch programs. Sophomore Eric Gabasoff used to be part of PAUSD’s Free and Reduced Lunch program.
“In elementary school and middle school, I got a discounted lunch as my family couldn’t afford it, but people could abuse that rule for free lunch,” Gabassof said.
According to the email, many students who have not applied to the Free and Reduced Lunch program still do not pay for lunches, which the district has to cover.
As a result, over the past few years, the debt has grown steeply. During the 2018-19 school year, the district wrote off $27,000 in debt. This year, the debt passed $27,000 mid-January.
PAUSD Food Service Director Alva Spence said while the unpaid lunches may lead to district debt, free school lunches are a necessity.
“I believe that it is crucial that no student be denied the ability to eat a meal, even if they do not have the funds to pay for that meal during the school day,” Spence said. “Students cannot focus, participate and perform at their highest levels if they’re concentrating on being hungry.”
However, Gabassof said the meals are not very beneficial to him. He said he has many criticisms as well as suggestions for improvements.
“I feel like school lunches are overpriced,” Gabassof said. “They have very small portions and are not healthy whatsoever. They should give out a variety of protein options and vegetables on the side, and give out water instead of milk.”
Gabassof said he believes the dip in quality is a result of the lunch debt. He thinks that because the district has been losing more money on lunch, they have made food portions smaller to compensate.
“Parents are ultimately responsible for covering the cost of their student’s meals, but some families are struggling financially,” Spence said. “School fundraising is already stretched for so many school events and programs. All families that are struggling should apply for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program to see if they qualify.”