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Donna McWilliam/AP

Kids with Unpaid Bills Lose Lunches at Some U.S. Schools

September 11, 2008 04:01 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Rising food prices have forced school cafeterias to tighten their belts and cut back on what they feed kids who have overdue lunch bills.

Addressing School Lunch Bills

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Students in Edmonds, Wash., have found themselves eating cheese sandwiches in their school cafeterias if they forget to bring their lunch money. The district says it has more than $200,000 in unpaid lunch fees from 2007.

Cashiers are checking each student’s account before allowing them to sit down to eat hot food. Those who have more than $10 in outstanding lunch charges must return their meal, which the cashier then throws out because of safety reasons. “You couldn’t just go to McDonald’s without any money and expect service. We can only do it for so long and we can’t do it any longer. It sounds ugly when you say the food has been discarded, but what can we do?” Sara Conroy, interim director of food service, told The Herald newspaper of Everett, Wash.

The school district says its plan is working. After five days of school, $45,269 in lunch fees was recovered.

Edmonds isn’t alone in trying to deal with high lunch costs. In Oxford, Mass., students will no longer be allowed to charge meals to their lunch accounts. “To penalize children for what parents are failing to do for them is difficult,” School Committee Chairman William C. Spitz told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette News.

Schools in Fitchburg, Mass., used to offer peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwiches to kids who owed lunch money. Getting parents to pay bills was still tough, and just feeding kids sandwiches was tougher, said Jill Lucius, the Fitchburg food services director. “It tugs at the heart to see a hungry little child.”  However, as Worcester Director of School Nutrition Donna M. Lombardi pointed out, schools “rely on collection for paid meals, especially as the price of food increases.”

Passing on Food Costs

In Springdale, Ark., schools haven’t resorted to cheese or peanut butter sandwiches just yet. They are, however, increasing lunch fees to help cover higher prices they must pay to buy food for making lunch. “This is the biggest increase we’ve seen hit us in a long time,” Springdale Assistant Superintendent Ronnie Bradshaw told 40/29 TV. Passing those costs on to parents was a tough decision, but necessary, Bradshaw continued. “We don’t feel like general public needs any more financial burdens and we try hard to keep it away from them.”

Some Michigan parents say they feel badly for parents paying more to feed several children, but not all believe their lunch costs are too much to pay. “It’s tough for some, but to get hot lunch for $2 still isn’t bad,” parent Jennifer Gill told The Muskegon Chronicle. “Try to go to McDonald’s or anywhere else and get a meal for that.”

Mona Shores, Mich., parent LaShelle Mikesell said she’s glad her son, a freshman, is taking hot lunch. “But like everyone else, we’ve had to cut back on some things recently to keep gas in the cars,” Mikesell noted.

Reference: National School Lunch Program

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