Claremont School Board weighs lunch policies after large amounts of debt

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 3/20/2019 9:52:54 PM
Modified: 3/20/2019 9:58:56 PM

CLAREMONT — The School Board hopes to institute policies to keep lunch debt from growing after it has been in the tens of thousands of dollars the past two years.

At Wednesday’s meeting, School Board members asked representatives with The Abbey Group, the food service company hired in 2017 to provide breakfast and lunch at the city’s five schools, what it can do to prevent the debt without violating federal law that prohibits denying lunch to students.

Jaca Hughes, director and account development, and Debra Belanger, food services director for Abbey in Claremont, made a few recommendations, including being more diligent in getting families to fill out forms to receive free or reduced lunch.

Most of the overdue accounts in the district schools are labeled as “paid” status, which means the student has to pay the full amount for a meal. School officials said they suspect a lot of those students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Acting Superintendent Cory LeClair told the board the total debt is just below $21,000 as of March 12, which is slightly less than the February number of about $21,700.

“The debt is not increasing,” LeClair said, adding that a part-time employee hired by the district to monitor the lunch program has been reaching out to families to set up payment plans.

At the end of last school year, the debt hit $32,000 but was wiped out by donations, including an anonymous one for $29,000.

But as soon as the school year began, the debt began accumulating at around $5,000 a month.

Hughes said another option with the “point of sale” system used by Abbey is to have “popups” on the account where parents can state nothing can be purchased if there is a negative balance.

Hughes related an incident at the middle school on Wednesday when a student tried to pay cash for ice cream but the account said the item could not be bought.

“She got mad, cursed at me and left,” Hughes said.

The student returned a few minutes later with a friend, and when Hughes again told her she could not buy ice cream, she said, “‘I’m not. My friend is,’” Hughes said.

A la carte items only can be bought with cash or if there is a balance on the card, Belanger said. But Hughes and Belanger said some students may use the cash they were given for a hot lunch to buy a la carte items and take a free hot lunch instead.

LeClair said of the 431 overdue accounts at all five schools, 269, worth about $16,500, are paid status and 117, or $924 worth, are free and reduced. LeClair said some students on free or reduced may owe because they previously were paid status and have not settled that outstanding amount.

There also was a brief discussion about the food quality. Board chairman Frank Sprague suggested Abbey Group do periodic surveys with students to ask about the choices and quality.

Hughes also told the board that lunch debt is not unique to Claremont or New Hampshire and there are nonprofits all over the country raising money to pay lunch debt.

The board soon will soon have to decide whether it will bring Abbey Group back next year under a new contract.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at

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