Four of Nebraska’s largest school districts use debt collectors to go after unpaid lunch tabs

The boy ordered 79 meals during the 2019-20 school year: Chicken fingers, mac & cheese, corn puppies, French toast sticks, hot dog, stuffed-crust pepperoni pizza. 

A court document labeled “Exhibit A” lists them all in plain black text. 

In total, he ate $194 worth of lunches at Clinton Elementary in Lincoln. When his parents failed to pay the entire amount, the school district referred the rest, $53, to a private debt collection agency that sued the boy’s parents in late 2020. 

The company won the case and garnished wages earned by the family’s breadwinner for several months.

Lincoln Public Schools turned over nearly 1,700 such school lunch debts to collector Professional Choice Recovery last school year. The average debt the district referred to the agency: $67.

Most of Nebraska’s urban school districts, including all in the Omaha area, have found ways around sending parents to collections over unpaid lunch tabs.

But four of the state’s 20 largest districts – Lincoln, Kearney, Columbus and Scottsbluff – use private collectors to recoup unpaid lunch tabs, according to a Flatwater Free Press analysis.

The Nebraska Legislature is considering a bill that would ban the practice of sending unpaid school meal debts to collection firms.

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Districts’ use of collection agencies primarily hurts working-class families who live paycheck to paycheck but earn too much money to qualify for free or reduced meals, said bill sponsor Sen. Danielle Conrad.

Sending lunch debts to collections can plunge parents into a “spiraling series of harm” that starts with a stress-inducing barrage of collection letters and ends with wage garnishment and damaged credit scores, the Lincoln Democrat said.

Nebraska school districts that use collection agencies say the longstanding practice helps their meal programs stay afloat amid challenging economic circumstances. It also holds families responsible for the deficits they accrue, said Kate Murphy, the food service director for Kearney Public Schools. 

If Conrad’s bill passes, it would remove the incentive for parents to pay their kids’ lunch bill, Murphy said.

At a hearing on the proposal last month, several members of the Legislature’s Education Committee were surprised to learn that districts refer meal debts to collectors. 

Sending parents to collections over small sums is “absolutely absurd,” said Sen. Joni Albrecht, a Republican from Thurston, noting that lawmakers boosted state K-12 funding last year to cover these kinds of expenses.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a heavy strain on public schools and the families that relied on them, but the mass expansion of a federal school meal program temporarily took one burden off their plate by making lunches free.

Since the universal free lunch program expired in 2022, lunch debts have risen across the country, according to survey data from the School Nutrition Association.  

Despite that uptick in debts, the use of private debt collectors remains a relatively uncommon practice nationally, said SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner.

Conrad first noticed LPS’ debt collection policy years ago while reading through the student-parent handbook for her kids’ school. The lawmaker said she tried behind the scenes to get the district to abandon the practice without luck.

“It really struck me as strange and out of alignment with LPS’ values that they had this policy,” Conrad said. 

Last school year, LPS referred lunch debts to third-party collectors at a far greater rate and over lower amounts than any other district contacted by the Flatwater Free Press.

The state’s second largest district sent 1,681 meal debts to Professional Choice Recovery, according to data obtained through a public records request. About 940 students owed the debts, meaning that LPS referred some families to collections more than once. 

More than a quarter of the debts were under $50, and only one exceeded $200. The debt collector recovered about $43,000 of the $112,000 owed by LPS families and got a 40% cut of the cash.

LPS’ nutrition program operated in the black last school year, bringing in about $1.9 million more than it spent. 

However, the district cannot use those dollars to write off lunch debts, so the money would have to come out of LPS’ general fund, which pays for staffing and operations, said Liz Standish, associate superintendent for business affairs.

So far, LPS has preferred not to go in that direction, but the district is reviewing its policies, Standish said.

Districts in Scottsbluff and Kearney have referred lunch debts to collections much more sparingly and usually as a last resort when indebted parents failed to respond to repeated messages about their kids’ negative balances, school leaders said. 

Scottsbluff Public Schools sent about 50 debts to collections last school year and all were over $100. The district recouped 9% of the roughly $12,500 it was owed.

Kearney Public Schools referred nearly 60 debts averaging $500 in the last year. The collector has gotten back less than 2% of the $29,500 owed.

Columbus Public Schools began using a private collection firm for the first time after last school year because unpaid meal balances exceeded $56,000. 

The district referred 194 families that owed more than $50 to the collector, but it has held off on reporting any parents to credit bureaus that could lower their credit scores. If debts aren’t paid by June, the district will report to the bureaus, said Superintendent Troy Loeffelholz. 

Jack Moles, director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, wrote in testimony to the Legislature’s Education Committee that only four of the more than 70 rural schools he surveyed had ever used a collector for lunch debts.

Murphy, the Kearney nutrition director, said her district has to pay its bills, but she wishes “the government would make meals free for everybody.”

Lincoln Public Schools, the state’s second largest district, sent nearly 1,700 meal debts to a debt collection firm during the 2022-23 school year. About 940 students owed the debts, meaning that LPS referred some families to collections more than once. Photo courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star

From South Sioux City to North Platte, Nebraska’s other urban school districts have found alternatives to the debt collector.

Omaha Public Schools has an income-based federal designation that allows it to serve breakfast and lunch to students for free regardless of economic status. 

Millard Public Schools referred parents to collections before the pandemic, but the suburban Omaha district has since abandoned the practice.

A handful of districts, including Fremont and Grand Island public schools, told the Flatwater Free Press, they use money from their general fund to cover unpaid meal balances. 

Other districts have relied on the generosity of donors in their community.

Norfolk Public Schools recently landed a couple of four-figure donations to cover past-due meal accounts.

One came from brother and sister Lincoln and Brooklyn Wingate, who sold cookies and cider to raise nearly $2,500 for the district, according to the Norfolk Daily News.

A group of local businesses led by Daycos, a transportation-oriented financial services company, pooled together $1,650 to cover Norfolk lunch debts.

Daycos Chief Operations Officer Andrea Libengood learned about school meal debts from a Facebook page tied to her nearby hometown of Battle Creek.

Libengood and her colleagues decided to give to NPS as part of the company’s annual holiday donation program. Through word of mouth, they got a dentist, a bank and construction company to pitch in, too.

“It was a slam dunk – let’s do it for the kids,” Libengood said. “We were unaware of the cause, and it just connected with us so much.” 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

By Jeremy Turley

Jeremy Turley covers the Omaha metro area. He worked at newspapers across the Midwest before moving to Nebraska. Most recently, he shivered through several frigid winters in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he covered state government and the COVID-19 pandemic for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri and a native of suburban Chicago. His hobbies include disc golfing, collecting campaign buttons and using too many em dashes — or so his editors say.


Whatever happened to personal responsibility?
When I grew up, my parents couldn’t afford to buy school lunches for me or my other brothers and sister. We brought a lunch from home. Many other kids did too.
It’s no wonder people expect their college loans to be paid by someone else. They are being taught at an early sge bad habits.

My sons school just sent out a memo asking parents not to pack their school lunch..I personally pack my sons lunch because he doesn’t like what the school offers..So basically am asking what would you do in this situation??

Instead of writing of much of this debt by having the districts’ general funds pay for it (meaning TAXPAYERS pay for it), let’s pay off the debts by garnishing the exorbitant salaries of school administrators.

I don’t understand how LPS can feel that this is okay. I know for a fact that some schools collect unopened milk , raisins , chips , bananas ,apples and other unopened food products and resell them instead of making them available for free to the kids that might need. Yes they are making extra money every time they resell!

A school CANNOT resell unopened milk, fruit, etc. as Helen claims. That would be a crime under USDA rules. In fact, every child through the lunch/breakfast line MUST take a milk whether they want it or not. If they are allergic, or don’t like milk, they MUST throw it in the garbage can even if it is unopened. One staff is positioned in place to make certain every child takes a milk. No employee nor anyone else may remove it from the cafeteria for personal consumption, and certainly not for resale. These rules are extremely strict as they are afraid someone may be sickened by a spoiled product and the school becomes liable. Loads of unopened food are discarded EVERYDAY from every school. The entire scheme is designed to purchase milk and other products from US farmers. Waste is not considered part of the equation.

No, they certainly do resell it. I know because I worked at Wysong elementary as a lunch lady for a year. It was gross to me to have to sanitize the milk cartons and put them away in the milk cooler.

Glenn I understand that schools aren’t supposed to resell but I know for a fact that it is happening! Go eat lunch at some of the schools and watch what is happening about 1/2 way through the lunch period. Notice the empty trays on a table in front of the tray return window. Watch what the kids are taught to do with their unopened milk, uneaten bananas ,apples, boxed raisin, unopened chips and many other items. You will be surprised! I have always thought that schools should make the unopened, uneaten food items available for free to students that are still hungry.

NSEA should create a fund out of the money for lobbying and political contributions, it would be a small portion

Heaven forbid that they would have to take a lunch from home and be fed that way. You are continuing too teach kids they don’t have to pay if they don’t want to. BE RESPONSIBLE. IT IS THAT ATTITUDE THAT HAS ENTITLED SOCIETY. Be a parent your kids are proud of
Incredible opportunity to teach a lesson.

That is horrible to go after parents for their children’s lunches, some parents don’t have the money for lunches. It is so sad that people in jail get free healthcare free meals, and yet we’re suing families that can’t hardly afford to feed their kids. Something is very very wrong with this situation.

“That is horrible to go after parents for their children’s lunches, some parents don’t have the money for lunches”

Who else SHOULD we go after for the cost of raising kids?

Y’all want CHOICE to have kids or not, but then refuse to accept responsibility for raising them!

Sorry, it is even MORE horrible to go after taxpayers to pay for the costs of raising YOUR kids’ !

It’s no mystery to ANYONE on how kids are created. It’s no mystery that raising kids is expensive. HOW DARE YOU expect others to pay for that very predictable process.


Is there a way for people to get info of unpaid lunch debt that they can go in and pay for one or two. Kids should not go without lunch or any other meal.

We should be ashamed as a society that we collectively don’t pay for our children’s lunches so we can avoid stories like this involving collection agencies. We should especially be ashamed as parents that our children (Like in Norfolk, good on them) have taken up the means to raise money for their fellow students.

I echo Diane and would also like more information on helping to offset this debt for some of the families.

For those who are unaware, sending debts to collection is a great deal more about retribution than getting debts paid. Collection companies collect the easy stuff and keep a huge portion of the money actually collected. The result if miniscule cash result with lasting damage to families. In addition, can we keep in mind that this is about children’s food and not about their parents. There are better solutions than keeping credit collection companies in their parasitic business. I’ve been in business 40 years and never used a credit collection agency.

For those who are unaware, sending debts to collection is a great deal more about retribution than getting debts paid. Collection companies collect the easy stuff and keep a huge portion of the money actually collected. The result is a miniscule cash result with lasting damage to families. In addition, can we keep in mind that this is about children’s food and not about their parents. There are better solutions than keeping credit collection companies in their parasitic business. I’ve been in business 40 years and never used a credit collection agency.

You apparently are one of the entitled parents. You think the parents are always even aware that their children got a cookie or milk, that they were charged extra? Do you expect a child to grasp the concept of ruining their parents credit when the school doesn’t even explain?! The schools don’t even teach them how to sign their names anymore, just type them. Apparently covid19 did not effect you. Stay at home mom? You didn’t even use proper grammer in your statement, maybe you should focus on being a better example. It is ridiculous that the schools are enforcing this. Worst case attempt to collect themselves, use that 40% for EDUCATION. The children without money should not be shamed! The parents should not have more stress, what do you think that does to the children?! This is not 1945, do you expect your kids to walk 3 miles in the snow as well?

LPS is big business. It doesn’t care for employees or students. Only the bottom line. I watched children, under 10 years old get excited when the food bank allotments were brought in. They told me they had no food at home. Is the massive amounts of property tax not enough? When did we lose our care for our fellow man?? My great grandmother fed drifters on her back step during the depression, even when they had nothing. FIND YOUR HEARTS

Sad that some folks get so bent out of shape that children might receive free lunches. Capitalist whining at its most flagrant. I doubt that these sentiments are representative of most Nebraskans.

A few years back I called the LPS Nutrition Program to see if I could donate money to pay some of these balances off and at that time they said it was not allowed. I don’t know if it is now. I’m sure I’m not the only person who who do this if they had the opportunity.

This is so wrong. Suing parents? That is horrible to go after parents for their children’s lunches, some parents don’t have the money for lunches. Such backward thinking. What is the point here? The kids suffer here. Kids can’t learn when their bellies are empty.
Glad I live in Minnesota where we have free lunches for school kids, no matter what their parent’s income is.

please tell us how we can help by paying a “delinquent” account.

Sending debt collectors to obviously struggling peoples homes is disgusting.

even more vile are the heartless “personal responsibility” squad who have no idea that right now, you can bust your ass working and still not afford to make ends meet. Has anyone helped you in your life? Well then, try to help others.



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