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Utah Incident Reminds Parents There is no Free (School) Lunch

by on February 03, 2014 6:55 AM

Talk about bullying.

A news story out of Salt Lake City is one of the most disturbing I have seen in a while.

Elementary school children, some as young as 5 or 6 years old, went through the school lunch line and picked up their lunches. At some point, an administrator noted that that many of the children (perhaps up to 40) had outstanding balances on their school lunch accounts.

The administrator instructed a worker to take the lunches from the kids and to throw them in the garbage. (Food safety regulations prohibited giving the lunches to another child.) The children who had their lunches trashed were given milk and a piece of fruit instead.

It was reported that at least one of the cafeteria staff members cried at the sight of little ones, crying and upset as their lunches were taken and then thrown in the garbage.

The most recent statement from the school district in question has come around to "we goofed."

We've come a long way since lunch tickets.

On Sunday nights when I was in elementary school, mother would sit down and go over the school menu that was posted in the paper. Which days do you want buy your lunch and which days will you pack? We would take our money to school on Monday and get in the line in the school lobby where there was a staff member with a cash box and a roll of tickets.

We would buy the tickets we needed for the week and then keep them in little file boxes that fit inside the desk to hold our tickets. I remember the tickets at some point being $.55. On the days we brought our lunch from home, we could either bring our own drink in a thermos in our lunch box or buy and use milk tickets.

Like everything else in today's culture, school lunches and the systems for parents to buy their child school lunches have come a long way. Schools now have mall-like food courts that offer a variety of options. They serve breakfast. There are hot items, cold options and snacks.

Kids in the high school can eat pizza every day. There are other drinks in addition to milk and chocolate milk. They have salad bars and taco bars and specialty meals around holidays. We have government mandates about nutritional make-up of the meals for kids, many of whom believe fast food is good food. We have "peanut free" zones and gluten free diets. The State College Area School District (SCASD) food service program even does catering for on-site events like sports team banquets.

The SCASD uses a computer program in which parents make deposits into the student account from home with a credit card. The child then goes through the lunch line, gives his or her student ID and then the appropriate account is charged. (Using that same program, parents monitor what kids are both spending and eating.)

Parents can set preferences to get alerts when the student's balance goes too low. Although that system is not foolproof, it does provide reminders. I know my son has learned to ask the cafeteria staff to "refresh" the system because he will sometimes be told he has no money when he knows that I have made a deposit. There have also been days when I either didn't get the reminder or forgot and he didn't have money and had to text me from school to remind me or had to ask a friend to front him lunch money (and he has helped out his friends as well).

I usually deposit $25 at a time. The system lets parents deposit hundreds of dollars in the account which would likely decrease the "I forgot" issue but, to me, the idea of big balance on an account that a teenager can use for food and snacks doesn't seem like a good idea.

According to Megan Schaper, Food Service Director for the State College Area School District "A child with a growling stomach isn't focused on the lessons being taught. So, we do everything we can to make sure that students are able to get a good lunch while at school."

The SCASD has policies for addressing an empty lunch account. First, the district works closely with parents to notify them of account balances. Schaper indicated that the district's IOU policy gets progressively more restrictive as the students get older. (IOUs are for kids who buy their lunches and are not related to kids who qualify for subsidized lunches.) After ten IOUs in the elementary schools, the students are limited to the deli sandwich lunch which is offered without embarrassment or shame to the child.

That's right. 10 free lunches and yet the student can still eat.

In the secondary schools, the district has partnered with the Parent Teacher Organizations (PTO) to help solve the problem. In the middle schools, after the student has used an IOU, the PTO will front 1-2 meal charges for students who have negative cash balances. The staff will ask a child to call a parent from the lunch line after he or she has used up both IOUs and PTO loans as a reminder about the outstanding balance. In the high school there are no IOUs but the PTO again lends a hand. According to Schaper, a high school student who runs out of money in his or her account and who hasn't paid back the PTO loan, could conceivably be denied a meal.

Somehow a 17-year-old forgetting to get money and skipping a meal seems different than a first grader having her lunch tray yanked out from in front of her and thrown in the garbage.

Megan was notably understanding about the issue. "Most IOUs are from students (and parents) who have simply forgotten to send lunch money." With that said, she and her colleagues in school food service say that unpaid balances create problems for school programs. Just like any other business, school food service programs must generate sales to cover their costs. Money to cover materials, staff, benefits, supplies, and equipment repair and replacement, has to come from somewhere.

The SCASD Food Service budget closed last year with $1,300 in unpaid IOUs and as of last Friday has $2,400 in IOUs and another $300 out on loan from the PTO so far this year.

There really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Despite frustration with parents not responding to what were likely repeated reminders and requests for the unpaid balances to be addressed, the situation in Salt Lake City was handled poorly. Little children, some with a limited understanding of money, were caught in a power struggle between the district and parents. Money and food wasted. Kids embarrassed and hurt at the hands of adults.

Taking a lunch from a child and throwing it in the garbage doesn't seem like a solution for anything.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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