SC districts can no longer use debt collectors to recover unpaid meals

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) – For the first time this school year, South Carolina schools will no longer be able to use debt collectors to go after students who have not paid for their school meals.

The change is now in effect, as some districts across the state returned to the classroom Monday, with the rest following in the coming weeks.

The General Assembly passed the change into law during the most recent legislative session, through unanimous votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and Gov. Henry McMaster signed it in mid-May.

Not every school district in South Carolina had been using debt collectors to recover unpaid school meals, and in some districts, every student eats for free.

But in those that were, one organization that pushed for this new law called it a win for struggling South Carolina families.

“This was one form of what we felt is meal-shaming, and we don’t want a child’s hunger to be what’s preventing them from being academically successful,” Wholespire Executive Director Meg Stanley said.

Wholespire is a statewide nonprofit organization that works to provide access to nutritious food and physical activity across South Carolina and advocated for the legislation’s passage after Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, proposed it.

Stanley said in some districts, debt collectors have not been the only consequence children have faced for unpaid school meals.

“Like preventing a child from being able to go on certain field trips, maybe even giving them a whole separate meal, which then becomes meal-shaming,” she listed.

Before this legislation became law, the state’s Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office tried to figure out how much the change would cost, as it does for any bill.

But analysts could not determine that figure because, according to their reportmost districts did not respond when asked if they used debt collectors and how much they collected.

The report cites a survey the South Carolina Department of Education sent to all 77 traditional districts and two charter districts. Only 13 responded — 12 of which said they do not use debt-collection agencies or that all students receive meals for free, and one of which said the legislation could increase uncollected debt expenses by up to $10,000.

Wholespire conducted a similar survey for which it also did not receive a response from every district, but from the information they did obtain, Stanley said they estimated there were around 120,000 South Carolina students learning in districts that employed debt collection practices.

But Stanley said a lot of families that were building up lunch debts and could not pay them likely qualify for free or reduced lunches.

She recommended families check in with their districts before the first day of school or in the first week back to see if they qualify and if they need to fill out any paperwork to apply.

“If their family is facing school lunch debt, they more than likely are facing a lot of different struggles,” she said. “Hunger doesn’t need to be what they need to be called out for in school.”

For the last two school years, every student in the country qualified for free meals at school, regardless of their income, because of a federal pandemic-related program.

Congress did not extend that program for this year, so Stanley said some families may not realize they could start being charged for those meals this year.

In some school districts, every student receives free meals through the federal government Community Eligibility Provision because their school is located in a lower-income area.

Stanley said the passage of this new law also presents an opportunity for those districts to look into that program to see if they qualify and would be able to offer free meals to all of their students.

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