Four Bakersfield-area elementary school districts amassed more than $380,000 in debt from unpaid school lunches last year, a cost they've decided to eat rather than try to collect. 

It’s unclear how high that debt was at all of Kern County’s 47 school districts since there's no centralized location of such records. But The Californian, curious about the issue, surveyed four.

The Bakersfield City School District, where 88 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, absorbed more than $280,000 in debt last year from unpaid lunches. The figure was $68,000 for the Greenfield Union School District; more than $21,700 for the Panama-Buena Vista Union School District; and about $13,000 for the Fruitvale School District.

At BCSD, 4,828 students had unpaid balances, district spokeswoman Irma Cervantes said. With an average meal costing between $1.60 and $1.65 depending on grade level, that's about 36 unpaid meals for each of those kids.

“The state requires us to absorb the cost, so we don’t carry that forward. We just absorb it and then we move onto the next year,” Bakersfield City School District Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Steve McClain said.

His district has accrued about $196,000 in unpaid school lunch debt so far this year.

How districts tackle school lunch debt, however, varies. Some school cafeterias deny meals to debtors, a practice that has captured the attention of state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who introduced legislation this month that would ensure all kids receive meals, regardless of their ability to pay.

“We know that hunger undercuts a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school,” Hertzberg said. “We also know that embarrassing children in front of peers can destroy their self-confidence. That is why it’s important to stop school lunch shaming and create a different approach for tackling lunch fee debt.”

The four school districts surveyed by The Californian don't employ those shaming practices, although the Fruitvale School District does limit the amount of food a child receives once his or her account is delinquent $9.50.

“If there is no resolution of the debt at this time, the students are still fed, but are given only the setup for the day and a milk, not the entree. Depending upon the meal for the day, we supplement with graham crackers and fruit,” Fruitvale Superintendent Mary Westendorf said.

But sometimes scaling back meal options doesn’t work, Greenfield Union School District Director of Nutrition Services Josh Rogers said.

“Sometimes the kids like the substitute (meal) better than what they’re serving on the regular line,” Rogers said.

That doesn’t necessarily encourage kids to nag their parents to pay off their account balances, if they’re financially able.

Greenfield’s $68,000 debt last year was accrued by 1,257 students, Rogers speculates, because there’s no punishment for non-paying parents.

“That’s the issue. There’s parents we’ve written it off for the last couple of years and now they know if they don’t pay it, then they‘ll get it,” Rogers said. “Our district doesn’t want to punish the kids for the parents' problems, which I like, but there’s no help we’re getting from (the state) on trying to get this collected.”

Rogers estimates debt from school lunches will exceed $100,000 this school year.

State laws don’t allow districts to withhold transcripts or report cards for unpaid school lunch debt the way they do if students have outstanding fees or fines, Rogers said.

“We have no real teeth in trying to collect. If it was a fine or a fee, then we could hold report cards or not let people graduate, but since it’s not considered a fine or a fee, we don’t have any power,” Rogers said.

While most schools, including Greenfield and BCSD, don’t bother going after debtors at the end of the year, others turn them over to collection agencies.

Panama-Buena Vista Union School District does.

“We’re really not about collections, but it’s not something we can give away. Somebody has to pay for it,” Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services Gerrie Kincaid said.

The district has tried to reduce the amount of debt other ways before resorting to collection agencies. It launched an online website where parents can pay for lunches, allowed payment plans for debt and encouraged parents to see if they qualify for the National School Lunch Program. The district’s overall school lunch debt dropped almost 11 percent in a single year.

BCSD, however, doesn’t turn over its debtors to collection agencies.

The massive debt is a Catch-22 for school districts. Most accounts are delinquent less than $50, so schools would have to hire a representative for small claims court to go after nominal amounts. Hiring a collection agency is also costly.

“It’s just a challenge to collect,” BCSD’s McClain said.

In at least one case, however, outstanding lunch debt wasn’t incurred by school districts or parents.

Last December, a parent walked into a Fruitvale Elementary cafeteria and, wanting to spread Christmas cheer, wrote a $1,200 check to cover all of the delinquent accounts.

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