Lunch tray

A Manheim Central School District student waits in line to pay for her lunch in this file photo from 2013

Pennsylvania's “lunch shaming” ban, while widely supported, might be costing school districts more money.

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, parents still owed Lancaster County districts $118,501 on their children's cafeteria accounts.

That's seven times more than in 2017, when Pennsylvania passed a law that banned serving students alternate meals if their accounts were in the negative.

And the sharp increase doesn’t even include figures from two districts — Hempfield and Manheim Central — that did not provide data for this school year.

Schools here had only $16,180 in debt after the 2016-17 school year, LNP records show.

Avoiding stigmatization

Lunch shaming — or calling attention to a student with a negative balance by either serving him or her an alternate meal or nothing at all — gained state lawmakers' attention in 2017 after extreme cases of stigmatization nationwide.

While many districts — including Lampeter-Strasburg, Manheim Central, Manheim Township, Octorara Area, Penn Manor and Warwick — offered regular meals regardless of their students' ability to pay, some still question the new law's impact on school meal debt.

“Times are tough for a lot of families, and knowing that the school will continue feeding them I think plays a factor in some cases,” Chris Johnston, Penn Manor's business manager, said in a phone interview.

School District of Lancaster and Columbia Borough offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. Parents in other districts can apply for free and reduced meals. But some don't always do that.

Efforts to collect

When parents fail to come up with, or neglect to pay, money owed for their children's meals, school districts follow up with letters, emails and phone calls. But, again, that doesn't always work. And taxpayers often end up footing the bill.

“There's really nothing we can do about that other than hope that they pay up next year,” Johnston said.

School districts are forced to cover the debt themselves until parents pay up. In some cases, the accounts are forwarded to a collection agency.

Donors help out

Many school districts have covered debt thanks to donations from the community.

Much of Lampeter-Stasburg's $696 in meal debt will be covered by churches and a handful of anonymous individuals, district business manager Keith Stoltzfus said.

Cocalico, Conestoga Valley, Donegal, Ephrata Area, and Warwick have also received donations, officials said.

Johnston said Penn Manor High School seniors with excess funds donated more than $1,900 to help pay off the district's cafeteria debt, which was $10,713 at the end of the most recent school year.

The same happened at Cocalico, which ended up with a $0 balance thanks to families of seniors and other community donors.

A Facebook page called Share Your Cheese was created by Lancaster resident Christina Diehl in 2017 to help find donors. But Diehl said she shut the site down after the 2017-18 school year when donations started to fizzle — in part because of the lunch shaming ban.

The new law, she said, “took away the passion behind why people would donate.”