Like many parents of school-age children, Frances Frost tries to keep up with the papers sent home in her daughter Natalie’s backpack. Sifting through permission slips, picture day fliers, field-trip notices, and other forms seems like a daily occurrence, and often somewhere lost in the pile is a reminder to send money to her fifth-grader’s school cafeteria. As the mother of four, refilling school lunch accounts is second nature by now, but last week she was caught by surprise. When her youngest went through the cafeteria line to buy lunch, the cafeteria worker told Natalie she didn’t have enough money to pay for her food: Her mother had forgotten to make the last deposit.
The Silver Spring, Maryland, mom says the lunch server graciously let Natalie keep her selected hot lunch with a reminder to bring money for her meal account. Still, Frost says a process that subjects children to the embarrassment of returning their lunch—one that isn’t uncommon in schools across the country—just isn’t sound. “There should be a way to indicate before they get into line that they don’t have enough on their account to save [children] the distress of having to return their lunch,” she said.
A debate on school nutrition—trading pizza, fries, and cookies for whole grains, fruits and vegetables—has raged for years, while a parallel debate has gone somewhat unnoticed and unaddressed: What should be the consequence for children with delinquent school-meal accounts? While the most pressing issue in some school cafeterias is students tossing healthier school lunches in the trash, in others it is school employees dumping children’s lunches in the trash for nonpayment. And the result is hungry children, stunned parents, and increasing questions about how school districts handle overdue payments.