Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, the state’s largest health insurance provider, is giving $159,000 to five counties to cut debt in their school lunch programs. School districts in Alamance, Guilford, Forsyth, Rockingham, and Davidson counties will get the money.

“Blue Cross NC’s mission to improve the health and well-being of our state starts with our children,” said Blue Cross NC Director of Community Relations Cheryl Parquet in a news release. “Working to end childhood hunger is the first step toward building stronger, healthier communities and addressing hunger throughout the state.”

The donation is part of BCBSNC’s annual giving and won’t affect premiums. The payments will occur by the end of the school year when the debt tally is final.

North Carolina has the seventh-largest school nutrition program in the country, with nearly 60 percent of students in public schools eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The federal government reimburses a good chunk of school meal funding through the National School Lunch Program. In 2017, the federal government reimbursed the state $387,928,245 for providing more than 140 million lunches.

School districts typically incur school lunch debts when parents fail to pay for their children’s lunches and aren’t enrolled in the child nutrition program.

The amount of debt ranges from district to school district. Rockingham County Schools reported about $12,000 in unpaid school lunches; Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools about $15,250. Those numbers are subject to change before the end of the school year as debt is paid off.

“Right now we have 59 percent of the district on free and reduced lunch programs, so this debt is accrued from those who are either just outside that qualification but still can’t pay, turned paperwork in late and accrued debt before they qualified for free lunch, or those students whose families just do not pay for whatever reason,” Brent Campbell, WSFCS chief marketing and communications officer said.

“We always allow students to eat, even if they do not have money to pay.”

If parents don’t pay the balances the school district covers the cost. Campbell said the district always plans in advance for meal plan debts.

“Typically we work with donors to help cover the debt,” Campbell said. “We also work with our nutritional partners, Chartwells, to recover as much debt as possible.”

Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said school nutrition programs share qualities with businesses despite being heavily regulated.

“Like all businesses, school nutrition operations have a responsibility to manage the accumulation of customer debt and address debt collection, preferably focusing on the adults responsible for providing funds for the purchase of school meals,” Stoops said.

NSLP is intended for low-income families at or below the 185 percent of the federal poverty level. Parents or guardians are only required to self-report their income on applications without providing any proof of earnings.

Carolina Journal has reported extensively on school districts’ failure to monitor reporting and fraud that can result from it.

School districts are allowed to audit the program, but the federal government requires they use only 3 percent of all approved applications. Households that have annual earnings within $1,200 of the income eligibility limitation are looked at first because they’re the most likely to make a mistake.

“Although they are heavily regulated and government-subsidized enterprises, school nutrition programs are businesses that need to generate sufficient revenue to pay employees and purchase equipment, food, and supplies,” Stoops said. “Unfortunately, most people don’t think of school nutrition programs in these terms. And therein lies the problem.”