Cash-strapped school districts from California to Florida are taking a tough approach on the growing number of school kids whose parents have fallen behind on their school lunch bills. Instead of hot meals, the children are given a cold cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a milk carton.
From the wires:
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A cold cheese sandwich, fruit and a milk carton might not seem like much of a meal – but that’s what’s on the menu for students in New Mexico’s largest school district without their lunch money.
Faced with mounting unpaid lunch charges in the economic downturn, Albuquerque Public Schools last month instituted a “cheese sandwich policy,” serving the alternative meals to children whose parents are supposed to be able to pay for some or all of their regular meals but fail to pick up the tab.
Such policies have become a necessity for schools seeking to keep budgets in the black while ensuring children don’t go hungry. School districts including those in Chula Vista, Calif.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Lynnwood, Wash.; have also taken to serving cheese sandwiches to children with delinquent lunch accounts.
Critics argue the cold meals are a form of punishment for children whose parents can’t afford to pay. Parents who qualify for free meals are not affected.
“We’ve heard stories from moms coming in saying their child was pulled out of the lunch line and given a cheese sandwich,” said Nancy Pope, director of the New Mexico Collaborative to End Hunger. “One woman said her daughter never wants to go back to school.”
Some Albuquerque parents have tearfully pleaded with school board members to stop singling out their children because they’re poor, while others have flooded talk radio shows thanking the district for imposing a policy that commands parental responsibility.
Second-grader Danessa Vigil said she will never eat sliced cheese again. She had to eat cheese sandwiches because her mother couldn’t afford to give her lunch money while her application for free lunch was being processed.
“Every time I eat it, it makes me feel like I want to throw up,” the 7-year-old said.
Her mother, Darlene Vigil, said there are days she can’t spare lunch money for her two daughters.
“Some parents don’t have even $1 sometimes,” the 27-year-old single mother said. “If they do, it’s for something else, like milk at home. There are some families that just don’t have it and that’s the reason they’re not paying.”
Albuquerque Public Schools students receive a cheese sandwich in lieu of a hot meal if they have exceeded a set amount of meals charged to their account, ranging from two at high schools to 10 at elementary schools. The schools’ Web site warns: “Once the charging limit is met, students will be offered an alternate meal consisting of a cheese sandwich and a beverage.”
The School Nutrition Association recently surveyed nutrition directors from 38 states and found more than half of school districts have seen an increase in the number of students charging meals, while 79 percent saw an increase in the number of free lunches served over the last year.