When Schools Literally Take Food Out of the Hands of Children

A recent episode at a Salt Lake City elementary school highlights a common, hard-to-solve problem: What should schools do when students can't pay for lunch?

Steven Senne/AP Photo

There are lots of tricky situations when it comes to educating children. But whether or not to take food out of a hungry child’s hands and throw it out should be one of the easiest calls for an administrator to make. And yet. Students lined up for lunchtime at Uintah Elementary School last Tuesday expecting to receive lunch just like any other day. But a school official had changed the rules: Now, if a student’s prepaid lunch account had insufficient funds, cafeteria workers were to take back the lunch, which costs about $2, and throw it out. So on Tuesday, when about 40 Uintah Elementary students tried to pay for their lunch at the end of the lunch line, cafeteria workers took their lunch and threw it into the trash.

This Dickensian scene inspired near-universal condemnation. When the district posted an apology on its Facebook page, it attracted more than 8,000 comments. One wrote, “Shame on every one of you for this for the actions taken or for standing by and allowing this to happen. You should ALL be fired. I am ashamed of you.” Another commented, “This is so disgusting! Why would anyone do this to little children?” One mother, whose 11-year-old daughter had her lunch thrown out, told the Salt Lake Tribune the incident was “traumatic and humiliating.” Another Facebook post announcing the decision to put the cafeteria manager and her supervisor on paid leave got more than 1,500 comments. Many commenters called for the employees to be fired. One wrote, “Paid leave?? PAID LEAVE???? Paid leave is for vacations, on the job injuries, and expecting mothers! NOT for BULLIES who take lunch from children!!”

The Facebook apology admitted that “This situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner.” But, while Uintah's methods were unnecessarily harsh, the question of how to handle delinquent lunch payments is a widespread and complicated issue without a clear solution. Many school districts lose tens of thousands of dollars as a result of parents falling into debt to the school cafeteria. Between 2004 and 2011, New York City absorbed at least $42 million in unpaid lunch bills. The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School District covered $40,000 in unpaid lunch fees in 2012, and parents owed $80,000 to a Georgia school district last year.

Balancing fiscal responsibility with a moral obligation to children has led school districts to implement policies that range from absorbing debt to offering less expensive meals for free. The federal school lunch program provides free or reduced-price lunches to many students, but qualifying requires a parent and principal to file the necessary paperwork. When parents are unaware of deadlines or do not know they qualify for the program, or when principals do not file the paperwork in time, the school is left to finance student lunches without adequate federal aid.

Rather than completely deny students food when a their parents owe money, many schools replace a student’s hot meal with a less costly meal, like a cheese or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Some schools allow students to receive a set number of meals or charge a certain amount of money after their account empties out. After that point, the student receives the less expensive meal until their parents settle the bill with the cafeteria. Davidson County, North Carolina, made headlines last year when it set a new policy allowing elementary and middle school students to charge $11.25 before they start receiving cheese sandwiches. If a student’s debt reaches $37.50, the bill is turned over to a collection agency. Proponents of these sorts of policies argue this keeps children receiving food and helps the school balance their budget. Critics point out that this practice stigmatizes students whose parents may be facing financial hardship.

Some school employees have taken the situation into their own hands. A cafeteria worker in Missouri gave a fourth grade boy free hot meals after noticing that he never had money and that the other students were picking on him over his cheese sandwich lunches. She was fired for “theft” from the cafeteria, but reinstated quickly after an outpouring of support from the town. On the other side of the issue, several food service workers were fired from their jobs in an Attleboro, Massachusetts, school after they denied lunches to about 25 students who did not have enough money in their prepaid accounts.

The School Nutrition Association has called for the federal government to step in to provide schools with guidelines on how to handle this issue. In the group’s 2013 legislative issue paper, they call for the United States Department of Agriculture to “establish clear regulations on how all schools must respond to requests for unpaid meals and how to manage the debt incurred by providing them.”

Easy answers and silver bullets don’t show up often in education debates. Most of the time, parents, teachers, and administrators earnestly disagree over the best way to help a child grow and learn. It is important to have these discussions and debates, but while the adults hash out the disagreements, students need to be protected from the fallout. Figuring out how to finance school lunches is a multifaceted and difficult problem, but throwing away a child’s food will never be the solution.