Seattle Students Racking Up Cafeteria Debt

Feb 13, 2012

SEATTLE, Wash. - Many school districts are switching to electronic payment systems in their cafeterias. Parents can fund their kids’ accounts online, and even see what their kids are buying for lunch. But kids can also charge food when there’s no money in their accounts. Now Seattle Public Schools is trying to collect $12,000 in unpaid lunchroom debt. From KUOW in Seattle, Ann Dornfeld reports.

Like a lot of parents, Phoenix Smith tries to keep his six-year-old son from eating too much sugar. “We use that as sort of an incentive or a reward, having a -- for example -- chocolate milk,” he explains.

When Smith’s first-grader has earned a treat, he gets 50 cents to take to school for a chocolate milk to drink with his sack lunch. So Smith was puzzled when he started getting these robocalls:

“... your student has a balance of negative $2.75. Please send payment with your student to clear this debt.”

The robocalls were from the district saying his son had racked up a chocolate milk debt in the lunchroom ... using a PIN number he got from lunchroom staff.

“Every enrolled student in the school district is automatically generated a PIN number,” says Wendy Weyer, Nutrition Director for Seattle Public Schools. She says the district went to this electronic cafeteria system six years ago.

The accounts are supposed to be used as debit accounts that parents put money into. But kids can charge food whether or not there’s money in their accounts.

The district has an official credit limit of $10 per student, Weyer says -– but it’s not usually enforced. “It really is a difficult situation because it’s kind of a no-win situation. You’re up against a $10 limit which is basically three meals, the student is still there in front of you, the desire is, y’know, to still feed the student because they’re presenting to you that they desire to eat.”

Phoenix Smith didn’t want his son to be able to buy food he wasn’t supposed to have, and to buy it on credit. When Smith called the district, he was told that cafeteria accounts are created for every student by default.

He says, “I was a little surprised by that and I said, ‘well I’m not interested, please take us off.’ And two different people I spoke to in Nutrition Services said, ‘well, that’s not possible.’”

Weyer says the district can’t close an account, but her office can change a PIN so a student can’t use it and put a note on an account to not let the kid charge food.

Phoenix Smith says that’s what he did, and the charges stopped. Then, last week, the robocalls started again. His son had been given the new PIN number and allowed to charge food. His son has admitted to buying some chocolate milk and some snacks. But there are mystery charges on the account.

And it’s easy to see how that could happen. Smith says to pay for things like chocolate milk, kids just write their PIN on a clipboard that anyone can see. That could make stealing another kid’s lunch money almost a cybercrime.

The district admits that kids have made fraudulent charges using other students’ PINs. Linda Jekel is the Washington State Director of Credit Unions. She also does a lot of financial education work.

“The first thing for financial education is we always try to teach children is that if they have a PIN number, that that should be kept confidential and that it be protected from unauthorized use,” she says.

Jekel also questions whether the district can legally go after parents for debts that their kids have accrued on these automatically-generated accounts.

“As far as I know, a parent can’t be liable for a child using an unauthorized account because they’re under the age of 18," Jekel says. "Only adults that are 18 and over can be contracted. And so that also presents a problem.”

Phoenix Smith says this situation is forcing his family to have personal finance conversations with his six-year-old that he’d hoped to put off for many years.

“The biggest problem I have with the policy is that it encourages this idea that you can just charge when you don’t have money," he says. "'Don’t worry, there’s a debt system that you can buy into to take care of that.'”

Now Smith says his family is getting collections robocalls from the district every other day.

Copyright 2012 KUOW