Unpaid school lunch bill? Your child might get a cold cheese sandwich

Caitlin Dolan, 13, of Canonsburg, Pa., was denied lunch at school on her first day of seventh grade because of an outstanding balance that her mother, Merinda Durila, right, said was the result of a paperwork mix-up.
Caitlin Dolan, 13, of Canonsburg, Pa., was denied lunch at school on her first day of seventh grade because of an outstanding balance that her mother, Merinda Durila, right, said was the result of a paperwork mix-up. New York Times

Some Central Kentucky school districts, including Fayette County, are among those across the nation that withhold a hot meal and instead offer a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk when students have a longstanding unpaid bill. Those students’ families earn too much income to be eligible for the government’s free meals program.

USDA officials who run the federal school lunch program say local school districts must balance providing for hungry children with the financial viability of food service operations. Tina Namian, chief of the USDA’s School Meals Policy Branch, told the Herald-Leader that local schools have discretion in developing their policies, which vary based on local circumstances and resources.

But there is a growing national movement against providing the less desirable alternative lunch — which sometimes is referred to as “lunch shaming.”

A 2014 report from the Department of Agriculture found that nearly half of all districts in the United States used some method to encourage parents to pay unpaid lunch bills. About 45 percent withheld the hot meal and gave a cold sandwich, and 3 percent denied food entirely, the New York Times reported.

In the last several days, the USDA updated a guide that shows school districts steps they can take to alleviate the stigma when children don’t have money to buy a meal, Namian said. Schools have been asked to consider using a more robust system of notifying families of low account balances. The USDA is requiring school officials to develop written policies by July 1 to address cases when children can’t pay for a meal at the time they are served, but it hasn’t banned the alternative meal.

How often is a hot meal withheld in Fayette County Public Schools and an alternative meal offered?

District child nutrition director Michelle Coker didn’t have exact numbers but said it isn’t often.

Coker said the lunch program is a self-supporting entity and has to remain financially solvent. She said the district goes to lengths to inform parents before withholding the hot meal.

“We try to do all these things not to put the student in that bad situation,” she said.

In Fayette County, students who aren’t eligible for free meals and who have unpaid school meal bills are allowed to charge two breakfast meals and two lunch meals. Currently there are $5,000 in unpaid charges in Fayette County, down from about $25,000 a few years ago, Coker said

Notifications of unpaid meal bills are sent to families through letters, phone calls, emails and some texts, she said. The district has an automated payment program that also notifies parents when accounts are low or negative. Students also are told when their accounts are getting low.

If Fayette students have hit the limit to charge meals and their account is negative, they are offered the alternative meal, she said.

Coker said that rather than embarrass children in the lunch line, some elementary schools take extra steps such as delivering sack lunches to the classrooms for the children to carry into the cafeteria.

Lunch prices in the 2017-18 school year would increase by 10 cents a meal for Fayette County Public School students under a proposal the school board will vote on May 22. The increase will allow the district Child Nutrition Program to comply with federal regulations that require adequate funding, she said. The proposed increase is from $2.50 to $2.60 for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and from $2.75 to $2.85 for students in sixth to 12th grades.

In at least 37 of 61 Fayette County schools that have school meals, all students eat free regardless of income through a federal program. That happens when 40 percent of students in a school are eligible for free meals.

Policies regarding unpaid balances vary among Kentucky school districts.

Three years ago, Jefferson County Schools adopted a policy that no student would be denied a hot meal. Meals continue to be charged to the student’s account if it is negative. Before the policy change, students were offered an alternative meal, Jefferson district spokeswoman Allison Martin said. Students at all but 18 Jefferson County schools receive free breakfast and lunch.

Madison County Public Schools are eliminating the alternative meal, giving the hot meal only and trying to work with families, community education director Erin Stewart said. In Madison County, 14 of 18 schools are eligible for free lunch for all students. In the past at the other four schools, Madison had offered the alternative meal.

The school district is phasing out alternative meals and developing a policy that will eliminate them, Stewart said. With so many schools offering free lunch, the alternative meals no longer save money. “Because we are dealing with such a small number of unpaid charges, we would rather work directly with families to resolve those unpaid charges and continue to provide the regular meal,” she said.

Scott County Public Schools let elementary students charge meals up to about $12, the equivalent of about five meals. When a student’s account is running low, the nutrition staff sends reminders home to parents. Once the account reaches a zero balance, another letter goes home. After exceeding the $12 charge limit, students are provided a grilled cheese sandwich and milk, public relations director Renee Holmes said. Middle and high schools don’t allow charges but always provide a meal to students, Holmes said.

Woodford County Superintendent Scott Hawkins and Anderson County Superintendent Sheila Mitchell said their districts work with parents as much as possible before offering alternative meals.

“No student is ever denied a meal in our cafeterias,” Hawkins said. When an account is low or meals are being charged, school officials notify parents at least three times in writing. Students may charge meals up to a $10 limit. Once that limit is reached, a student is served a sandwich, fruit and milk.

Mitchell said Anderson County students receive alternative meals on “very rare occasions.” The alternative meal is a cheese or sometimes a ham sandwich, fresh fruit and a choice of milk.

“We never deny a child food,” she said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears