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Food and Nutrition Programs

An Act Promoting Student Nutrition (2 of 2) — Student Unpaid Meal Debt

To:Local Education Agencies (LEAs)
From:Robert M. Leshin, Director, Office for Food and Nutrition Programs
Date:February 28, 2022

On October 14, 2021, An Act Promoting Student Nutrition, Chapter 62 of the Acts of 2021, was signed into law. Chapter 62 was signed by Governor Baker with two provisions that seek to increase students' access to free and reduced price school meals and prohibit schools from implementing practices that negatively impact students with unpaid meal debt. Chapter 62 establishes two new sections within Chapter 71 of the General Laws: M.G.L. Chapter 71, Section 72A and Section 72B. This memorandum will outline required new protocols and provide detailed guidance related to Section 72B and student unpaid meal debt.

New Protocols for 30-day Period after Notifying a Household of Unpaid Meal Debt

Under M.G.L. Chapter 71, Section 72B (a), the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is required to establish a protocol for school districts to use when notifying a household of unpaid meal debt. Further, school districts are required to both notify a parent or guardian of unpaid meal debt and determine if a student is otherwise directly certified, categorically eligible or income eligible for free or reduced price meals within 30 days of notifying a household with unpaid meal debt.

Notification to Parents/Legal Guardians

To maximize federal nutrition benefits and minimize further debt to the household, during this 30-day period, school districts should affirmatively contact households and offer an application for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

When notifying households of unpaid meal debt, DESE is requiring school districts to affirmatively contact the responsible parent or legal guardian of a student with unpaid meal debt. Recommended ways to ensure households have received and read the notification are either the use of first-class mail or through email communication that includes a receipt response.

Districts are urged to make every effort to reach and discuss unpaid meal charges with the responsible adult.

Determination of a Student's Free and Reduced Price Meal Eligibility

During the 30-day period after notifying the parent or legal guardian of unpaid meal debt, DESE is requiring all school districts to access all methods of benefit determinations including:

  • direct certification matching through the Virtual Gateway,
  • determining if the student is otherwise categorically eligible through either the homeless, migrant or runaway categories,
  • in foster care through the state, or
  • determined through an NSLP household application.

As noted in the companion memorandum "New Requirements Related to Special Provisions," school districts are strongly encouraged to conduct monthly direct certification file uploads to timely capture students who are automatically eligible for free or reduced price meals. Given the more than 30% increase in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation in the Commonwealth since the onset of the pandemic1 and the expiration of the federal pandemic unemployment assistance in September of 2021, more Massachusetts students and their siblings are in receipt of SNAP benefits and thus are also eligible for free school meals.

Required Serving of a Reimbursable Meal

Students should not be denied access to school meals during the 30-day period unless the district has made a determination that the household is ineligible for free or reduced price meals. Ineligibility for free and reduced price meals takes place when an application is determined over income. The meal provided during that timeframe must meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meal pattern whether it is the main meal being offered or an alternate meal.

Protection of Students with Unpaid Meal Debt from Public Identification and Punishment

M.G.L. Chapter 71, Section 72B also protects students with unpaid meal debt from public identification, embarrassment or any disciplinary action due solely to unpaid meal debt.

M.G.L, Section 71, Section 72B (b) states the following:

No agent, employee or volunteer of a school or school district shall:

  • take any action that would publicly identify a student when payment has not been received for a school meal or for meals previously served to the student;
  • serve a student with unpaid meal debt an alternate meal that is not also available to all students at the cafeteria;
  • deny a student a meal as a form of behavioral discipline or punishment;
  • dispose of an already served meal because of the student's lack of funds to pay for the meal or because of unresolved meal debt;
  • prohibit a student or a sibling of a student from attending or participating in non-fee based extracurricular activities, field trips or school events solely because of the student's unresolved meal debt;
  • prohibit a student from receiving grades, official transcripts, report cards or from graduating or attending graduation events solely because of unresolved meal debt; or
  • require a parent or guardian to pay fees or costs in excess of the actual amounts owed for meals previously served to the student.

School districts must have meal charge policies in place at the start of every school year. The policies must be both publicly available on school websites and readily provided to households in an easily accessible format. As school districts are aware, posting of school meal charge policies is in accordance with USDA guidance, is a requirement per state budget language, and is now incorporated into DESE's NSLP Administrative Reviews.

DESE understands the challenges of unpaid meal charges in recovering unpaid meal debt and the negative impact on school meal operations. DESE will continue to work with school districts to identify additional ways to minimize unpaid meal debt.

Additionally, the following USDA resources are available to support district implementation: Unpaid Meal Charges | Food and Nutrition Service (usda.gov).

Questions and Answers

  1. How are school districts required to notify households of meal debt?

    When notifying households of unpaid meal debt, DESE is requiring school districts to affirmatively contact the responsible parent or legal guardian of a student with unpaid meal debt. Recommended ways to ensure households have received and read the notification are either the use of first-class mail or through email communication that includes a receipt response.

    If the district receives returned mail or an inaccurate email, the district should take steps to update the parent or legal guardian's contact information. The guidance department or school social work staff could be helpful to confirm the parent or legal guardian contact information. If written or email communication is not successful, districts could call or text the parent or legal guardian for follow up.

  2. What are examples of prohibited activities that publicly identify a student with unpaid meal debt?

    No school district employee, volunteer, or agent (this includes contracted entities working within the school) may publicly identify a student for unpaid meal debt.

    Prohibited activities include:

    • Announcing or publicizing the names of students with unpaid meal charges,
    • Using hand stamps, wrist bands, stickers or other physical markers identifying students with outstanding meal charges,
    • Discussing any outstanding meal debt in the presence of other students,
    • Denying or delaying meals to any student as a form of punishment or discipline, such as requiring a student to eat at a different time of day than their classmates or in isolation.

  3. Does the new law prevent school districts from serving an alternate meal (such as a cheese sandwich or sun-butter sandwich) to students with unpaid meal debt?

    The school district may offer an alternate meal. However, the alternate meal must be offered to all students (documented on the menu) and comply with the USDA meal pattern. While an alternate meal (that is reimbursable and offered to all students) is permissible, it is recommended to provide students with unpaid meal debt the main reimbursable meal being offered for the day.

  4. Are school districts allowed to limit the school activities (such as sports, grades, graduation activities, transcripts) of students with unpaid meal debt?

    Students cannot be barred from any non-fee school activities such as field trips, school plays or any after school activities that otherwise do not require a fee for participation solely because of the student's unresolved meal debt.

    School districts are reminded that some sibling students may have different parents responsible for their financial well-being and therefore should not involve siblings in unpaid meal debt matters.

    The new law expressly prohibits school districts from taking any action to deny students with unpaid meal charges access to their grades, official transcripts, report cards or prohibit them from graduation activities.

  5. Can the school district still use debt collection agencies to pursue unpaid meal debt?

    The new law expressly states that school districts — including any "agent" of the district — may not "require a parent or guardian to pay fees or costs in excess of the actual amounts owed for meals previously served to the student." This means a household cannot be asked by the school or any entity acting on behalf of the district, to pay interest, late fees, surcharges or court-related fees (such as Constable fees) in addition to the amount paid. An "Agent" includes the contracted meal services provider or any debt collection agency taking action on behalf of the district.

    Since most debt collection agents routinely add additional upfront fees and interest rates for their services, school districts are strongly discouraged from using debt collection agencies to resolve meal debt. Districts are encouraged to find other strategies to resolve unpaid meal debt.

  6. During the 30-day period, and until the district has made a determination that the household is ineligible for free or reduced price meals, do schools have to serve the student?

    Yes. Students should not be denied access to school meals during the 30-day period unless the district has made a determination that the household is ineligible for free or reduced price meals. Ineligibility for free and reduced price meals takes place when an application is determined over income. The meal provided during that timeframe must meet the USDA meal pattern whether it is the main meal being offered or an alternate meal.

  7. Are second meals applicable to the new law?

    No, second meals are considered a la carte options and are not reimbursable. As such, providing a la carte options including the pricing of a la carte items, is a local decision.

  8. How can we help households concerned that school meal and SNAP Benefits might negatively impact their citizenship status?

    Receipt of SNAP, NSLP or other means-tested nutrition benefits does not have any negative immigration consequences on the household. See EOHHS Guidance on Public Charge posted here.

  9. How can I help a household qualify for SNAP benefits, which will directly certify their children for free school meals and boost my identified student percentage?

    • Encourage households to apply for SNAP through the DTAConnect online application portal, or by calling the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) Assistance Line (1-877-382-2363) to file a telephonic SNAP application.
    • Encourage households to apply through a SNAP Outreach Partner, including Project Bread's Food Source Hotline (1-800-645-8333).
    • Send DTA's SNAP promotional materials (available in 14 languages) to households including, available here: SNAP Outreach.
    • Apply to become a federally reimbursed SNAP Outreach Provider. You can find out more information about SNAP Outreach here.

  10. How do we help households with student unpaid meal debt who appear ineligible for free or reduced price meals? Should we encourage them to apply for SNAP?

    Because the SNAP gross income test goes up to is 200% of the federal poverty level (FPL). Households who qualify for reduced price meals (income between 130% and 185% FPL) are excellent candidates for SNAP outreach. If the household qualifies for SNAP, all children in the household become directly certified for free school meals.

    A household may still be SNAP eligible even if they appear over-income for NSLP. The federal SNAP program does not have the same "economic unit" requirements as the NSLP.



1 MA Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) public testimony before State Joint Committee on Ways and Means on 2/15/22 download (mass.gov)

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Last Updated: February 28, 2022



 
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