Blog: The Educated Reporter

For Salt Lake City Students, No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

There are bad ideas, and then there are the seemingly indefensible ones. I’d argue that snatching back lunches from the trays of elementary school children whose parents owe the cafeteria money – and then throwing that food into the trash while the hungry kids watch — falls into the latter category.

But that’s just what happened in Salt Lake City, much to the dismay of the children’s families. Apparently, as many as 40 students at Uintah Elementary School were identified as having delinquent accounts after they had already received their food. It was then taken back and thrown out because the health code prohibits it from being served a second time. (The  students were given fruit and milk in place of the trashed lunches.)

From the Salt Lake Tribune’s reporting:

“It was pretty traumatic and humiliating,” said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line. Lukes said as far as she knew, she was all paid up. “I think it’s despicable,” she said. “These are young children that shouldn’t be punished or humiliated for something the parents obviously need to clear up.”

The district has since apologized for the incident. The central office manager who apparently made the decision to seize the meals has been put on administrative leave pending an investigation, according to the Tribune.

There can be many reasons for a student to have a delinquent meals account, from forgetful parents to a family experiencing true financial hardship that makes it difficult to come up with even a few dollars a day for the cafeteria. Certainly some of those families might qualify for federally funded free meals, but that again requires the school to successfully reach the parents and collect paperwork. 

According to the Salt Lake City School District’s Facebook page, the elementary school was targeted for action by the food services manager because of a high number of students with delinquent meals accounts. Supposedly the parents had been notified in the prior week that they owed money but many said they were surprised when they were informed of their status after their children had their meals taken away.

The district posted a lengthy apology empathizing with “upset parents and students who say this was an embarrassing and humiliating situation.” More than 8,000 people have since commented: Some criticize the parents for not paying closer attention to their children’s accounts while others blame the district. (The online apology was not without irony. The post immediately preceding it is a link to a statewide effort to end child hunger.)

It’s understandable that school districts want to balance their books when it comes to food services, and many end up providing breakfast and lunch at a deficit. Parents say they’re not being promptly informed when their kids owe money or it’s time to renew paperwork, and districts counter that they’ve tried everything from emails to text messages to sending notes home in the old-fashioned “backpack express.” But what happened in Salt Lake City is not an isolated example of children becoming the pawns in those cafeteria wars.

You don’t have to look hard to find recent examples of the infamous “cheese sandwich” tactic used by districts from South Carolina to Tennessee to Pennsylvania. Students whose parents owe money are given a modest cheese sandwich – a meal that brands them as the children of deadbeats, critics contend. Typically schools try to avoid practices that overtly identify students who receive free and reduced-price meals, such as assigning them to a separate line or checkout counter.

There are ways for districts to address cafeteria budget woes, including taking a hard line on allowing students to charge meals when they don’t have cash in hand. The Davidson County, N.C. school district set a strict new policy allowing students to accrue no more than $11.75 in debt before being restricted to the less-costly “alternate” meal – a peanut butter or cheese sandwich plus fruit and milk, according to Education Week. If a family’s bill hits $37.50, the district refers the case to a collections agency.

The publication Food Service Director looked at the growing problem of delinquent accounts, and how districts are responding:

“We all struggle with delinquent payments,” Joanne Kinsey, director of school nutrition services for Virginia’s Chesapeake Public Schools. “The whole issue of meal charges, alternate meals and the ‘cheese sandwich’ offering is controversial. No one wants kids to starve, but finding the balance between doing the right thing financially and morally is tough.”



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