By Christopher Smith
A Whitfield County Schools policy limiting students to a cheese sandwich and milk if they have a certain number of unpaid cafeteria charges resulted from a review by the state Department of Education, school system officials said.
Elementary students can have up to five unpaid lunch charges before the policy kicks in, while middle and high school students are limited to three charges on lunch and breakfast, but if a student brings in money for that day’s lunch he or she can get the full lunch without having to bring their account current, officials said. Elementary students receive a free breakfast each school day.
“Last year we were cited for not enforcing a charge policy in our federal and state review of our food service program,” said Judy Gilreath, county school assistant superintendent. “We had to begin implementing the policy or face penalties ... We could lose federal funding. School nutrition is a nonprofit so it has to stay in the black.”
The state review said school officials must “establish a local written policy for charged meals (and) communicate the charge policy to all students, parents, school personnel and community. Bad debt (uncollected meal charge) is not an allowable expense for federal programs.”
Unpaid cafeteria charges reached $73,000 before the policy started being enforced on Jan. 3. After a month, six “alternative lunches” had been served and $20,000 collected from parents, said county schools spokesman Eric Beavers. Some of that money might go toward finger scanning software to “stop students from sharing lunches,” said Angie Brown, school nutrition director.
“We will put these (finger scanners) at Northwest Whitfield High and Southeast Whitfield High,” Brown said. “Currently we have a keypad. Students would either give their number away or charge themselves for another student who couldn’t pay. They were sharing and this will stop that.”
Brown said she’s talking with identiMetrics, a Pennsylvania-based company that installs finger scanning ID systems in schools. Installing the software at both county high schools would cost $6,200, said a company representative. The project could be completed before April 1, Brown said.
“This will help us with identity control and it will get kids through the lunch line faster,” Brown said. “Most unpaid charges are at the high school level. This will help us identify the students who have unpaid charges and who we need to address.”
One way to address students with unpaid charges is by communicating with parents, Gilreath said. Letters detailing the new policy were sent to parents.
“Your child’s account now has a charge balance,” the letter reads. “Please send enough money to cover the balance ... we will have in place a new cafeteria charge procedure. Students will have a limited charge privilege ... If the student currently owes charges, these need to be cleared as soon as possible. The school will make every reasonable effort to notify parents when their child has charges so that these can be taken care of before the limit is reached.”
The state review said local school board members can set that limit. Local school officials can set a limitless cafeteria charge policy for students, said Gilreath, or an even stricter policy.
“Students do not have to pay off the balance first (to eat),” Gilreath said. “They are only given a cheese sandwich if they ask to charge and have reached the three or five charge limit ... they are just not allowed to have additional charges until the amount owed is paid. If a student has a cafeteria balance, but brings money for the current day’s lunch, he or she is allowed to purchase the same meal that other paid students are being served that day.”
If a student is given an “alternative meal,” the student’s original food tray should be “disposed of in the back, out of the sight of all students,” the state review said. But some say those who cannot charge and have no money will still be embarrassed.
The Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit organization working with the federal government on childhood nutrition, released a statement in 2009 against the alternative lunch policy.
“Taking a hot meal away from a child is not the answer to balancing a school district’s budget,” the statement reads. “In an attempt to address unpaid lunch fees, some school districts are adopting a ‘cheese sandwich’ policy which dictates that school food service personnel take away a child’s regular school lunch and replace it with a cheese sandwich when that child’s family owes money to the school nutrition program.”
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a statement in 2009 that puts the onus of cafeteria policy on local school officials.
“This includes decisions about whether or not to extend credit to children who forget their meal money or whether or not to provide an alternate meal to such children,” the statement reads. “Therefore, a school could decide not to provide meals to children who must pay the full price for their meals but do not have the money to do so.
“In some cases, the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) or other school organization may establish a fund to pay for children who forget or lose their money. Schools should ensure that parents are fully aware of the policy adopted for children who do not have their meal money.”
“I’ve heard of principals clearing the unpaid cafeteria balance out or PTA groups paying it,” Gilreath said. “That has not happened here. I’m not sure how we would do that. Our principals don’t really have money to cover it. We wouldn’t mind having a group or someone paying that off. That’d be great.”