TUSD hopes to take a bite out of growing food debt

TUSD addresses meal debt

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Keeping every student fed isn’t free. As it turns out, the Tucson Unified School District has been footing the bill for many families.

Only halfway through the 2020-2021 school year, the food service debt has already reached nearly $350,000. That’s close to the same amount for the entire 2019-2020 school year.

“So, essentially, we are on track to double that amount,” said Lindsay Aguilar, the administrative dietician for TUSD Food Services.

Aguilar says students with unpaid food debt don’t qualify for the federal government’s free meal program.

“This is a revenue that we are not getting reimbursed for because these are for meals that should be paid for by those that are receiving the meals,” she said.

At the end of each fiscal year, the district ends up paying off those debts.

“We have been paying that unpaid lunch debt from district funds, from our axillary account,” said Renee Weatherless, the executive director of finance for TUSD.

The rainy-day, miscellaneous funding could instead be spent on things like band uniforms or be filtered back into classrooms.

That’s why, during Tuesday night’s meeting, the TUSD school board voted on a measure to reduce the growing debt.

Before, students could rack up unlimited breakfast and lunch debt on their accounts. Now, kindergartners to eighth-grade students will be limited to two unpaid meals. High schoolers won’t even be able to charge their account unless they have money to pay for their meals.

However, Aguilar said that doesn’t mean students will be going hungry.

Those without funds will be offered an “alternative meal.” It will be comprised of items already on the menu.

“That way, you’re not singling out a student that maybe doesn’t have funds,” Aguilar said. “And students will be getting the nourishment that they need.”

Aguilar estimates the changes will reduce the growing debt by at least 20 percent.

The new policy goes into effect immediately, but there will be a grace period and parents will be notified.

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