We’ve all read the national stories about kids being pulled from the lunch line because their school lunch accounts are in arrears. The most recent report came from Salt Lake City last week, where 40 children at Uintah Elementary School had their lunches taken from their hands and thrown in the trash.
For those over forty who don’t have kids or grandkids in school, it’s worth a moment to explain how school lunches work today. Back when most of us were kids – and if we were in a school that offered the “hot lunch program” – we brought our lunch money to school. In some districts we paid a cashier in the cafeteria and in others we bought a lunch ticket from our teacher. Kids who couldn’t afford lunch were “allowed” to assist in the kitchen and dish room to pay for their lunches.
In today’s schools the lunchroom is a cashless society. Student all have a “lunch account” that their family keeps funded. Each time a kid passes the register his account is debited for the food on his tray. Nobody in the cafeteria knows which kids pay and which kids are on free/reduced lunch.
It’s the parent’s responsibility to keep their child’s lunch account funded. When the account falls into arrears most school district’s policies dictate how the situation is to be handled. As we saw in Utah last week, sometimes the “situation” is handled rather badly.
Could something like Uintah Elementary’s scandal happen here on Cape Cod? We polled the superintendents of every Cape school district last week. We take comfort in what we learned about lunch money policies in the districts that responded.
What Cape Cod Today Asked
Our poll to superintendents posed the following questions:
Can you tell us how your district handles lunch arrearages?
How far in arrears would an account fall before a child could not get lunch?
If a child is to be “shut off”, how is it handled at school with the child?
Do you offer a substitute lunch so the child has something to eat?
Brian Hyde, Mashpee’s freshman superintendent, was the first to respond. He got back to us within two hours of our initial query.
Mr. Hyde sent us copies of the Mashpee school lunch policies, a sample letter that would be sent home to a parent whose child’s account is in arrears and the following statement from Gus Stickley, Mashpee’s director of food services:
The policy adopted by the school committee clearly states that no student at the Middle or High School level can have a negative balance. Having said that, I can assure you that no one is ever not allowed to have a lunch. They will receive and be charged for a lunch. Prior to giving a student the alternative lunch, phone calls, letters, etc. have been sent and made to try and get the parent’s cooperation. Generally, we don’t even go to the alternative choice until they are over $10 owed, which is twice the level that we are able to enforce the policy.
Paul Niles, executive director of Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, was next to respond. He offered the following statement, published here exactly as submitted:
If a student's account is $20 or more in arrears, we send out a letter to inform the family. If payment doesn't come in, we will send out another letter after 2 more weeks. If this doesn't work we turn the case over to the business manager....
The business manager will call the family to discuss the issue. In some cases the family will apply for free and reduced lunch status at this time. In other cases, the business manager will set up a payment plan with the family.
At no time do we deny children food. Even if the account is in arrears, we still allow the student to purchase lunch. We do have alternative free lunches available for students who forget theirs- sunflower butter and jelly on whole wheat bread. It's really good!
Cape Cod Regional Technical High School
Cape Tech’s superintendent, Bob Sanborn, sent us the following statement:
We never deny a lunch. In certain circumstances, we have offered a substitute (ex. PB & J) if they have not paid for several lunches in a row. Our Point of Sale system can track debts and all debts must be paid by the end of the year. Families also have the ability to pay remotely through our Point of Sale system. Our Food Service Director does a masterful job of handling these situations when they arise.
Carol Woodbury, superintendent of the Dennis-Yarmouth Regional School District offered her district’s policy and explains how they intervene when they see a potential problem arising:
All students are provided with a school lunch meal regardless of their account balance. In the case of forgotten or lost lunch money, we allow a meal to be charged to the students’ account, with the agreement that the debt will be paid in a timely fashion. Students receive low balance account notices on a daily basis. Bills are distributed to elementary students bi-weekly and twice a semester to middle and high school students. If we have any families who seem to really be struggling our social workers can sometimes work with them. Maybe they are entitled to free or reduced lunch, but don’t know how to complete the form. If they can’t read the form we might have an English Language Learner teacher help them. Principals and assistant principals also work closely with families to keep a pulse on the needs.
Bourne, Falmouth, Sandwich, Barnstable, Monomoy, Nauset, Upper Cape Tech, Truro and Provincetown all failed to respond to the lunch poll. Given the small-town common sense of Cape Cod, we hope they all follow similar policies to the district from which we did hear.
If any other district would like to submit their statement on lunch account arrearages we will be happy to publish them.
Mashpee, Cape Tech, Lighthouse Charter and Dennis-Yarmouth all seem to handle lunch arrearages in a calm, deliberate manner. Indeed, DY’s superintendent explained detailed steps her district would take to assist a family and anticipate get in front of the problem before the situation became acute.
As we hoped, it appears that Cape Cod’s “small town common sense” prevailed for kids whose families were unable to keep their lunch balance correct.