Local News

February 2, 2013

County school officials adopt the ‘cheese sandwich policy’

A new lunch policy adopted by Whitfield County Schools on Jan. 1 has some parents concerned.

Students who have more than five unpaid cafeteria charges are now given an “alternative lunch” consisting of a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk until their balance is paid off. The cost of an elementary student lunch varies, but it’s usually $2 a day.

“Before the policy, unpaid charges for lunches had grown to $73,000,” said Eric Beavers, school system spokesman. “We’re trying to collect money owed to the school system, while ensuring kids have an option to be fed during the day. After the new policy started, only six (alternative) lunches were served and about $20,000 of unpaid charges have been received.”

A typical school lunch under U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines consists of a plateful of fruit, vegetables, grains and protein sources like meat and milk.

 The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 19 grams of protein and at least 1,000 calories a day are what an elementary-aged child needs to be healthy, while middle school children require 34 grams of protein and around 3,000 calories.

A cheese sandwich has 229 calories, according to the USDA, while a carton of 2 percent milk has 122 calories and 8.05 grams of protein.

County school officials say they aren’t the first to adopt the “cheese sandwich policy.”

New Mexico school systems started the trend back in 2009, receiving criticism from parents for “singling out poor students,” according to The Associated Press. Dalton Public Schools adopted a similar policy in 2010; that policy allows students to have 25 unpaid cafeteria charges before consequences.

“All this stems from rules and regulations from the federal government since the school nutrition department is a nonprofit organization,” said Amy Weaver, city school nutrition director. “School nutrition programs cannot incur debt. We try to be debt-free and, as of now, we’re totally financially self-sufficient. We don’t try to take funds out of the general school fund. We operate only on federal funding and what parents pay us. We exist on that.”

Beavers said the new policy also provides an “incentive” for parents to use the system’s Free Meal Application. Both county and city schools offer free lunches — the full menu, not a cheese sandwich — for families who receive help from government programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC); if the student is a foster child; or if the parents’ income is considered limited based on the size of the household.

“Our goal is to help get communication going between parents and teachers and the lunch room,” Weaver said, “before our lunch room reaches a level that says you can’t charge for food anymore. We send home letters all the time with a balance. Every single week we print off any charges on a student’s account. It shows any money that is due and a letter is sent home to the parents for a child that owes money. We also send free lunch applications if we think the parents are struggling.”

Pat Holloway, director of communications for the city school system, said the nutrition department there is “very aggressive about telling parents the situation before their child has to receive the alternative lunch.”

And if the student is sensitive to dairy products?

“I’m not sure what the plan is for each school,” Beavers said, “but I’m sure they would provide something else in those situations.”

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