By SEAN ROWLEY
Reports of a Utah school that denied lunch to about 40 students whose cafeteria accounts were in arrears sparked a nationwide conversation last week, and aimed a spotlight at other school meal policies.
Some parents expressed surprise and disgust with Uintah Elementary School – not because the students were instead given milk and a piece of fruit, but because they were initially given the day’s regular lunch on trays, which were then taken from them and the food thrown away.
The school has since issued a public apology, but parents in Cherokee County may be unaware that schools here can also serve a cheaper lunch to students if their payments fall too far behind in payments.
Cherokee County school districts have official policies, but they are not enforced rigidly. Sometimes a school decides a child’s parents are too delinquent in payment and the child is required to take an “alternative” lunch. But almost all late accounts are resolved - or at least addressed - before that measure is taken.
“We always try to work at it,” said Ronnie Kerns, child nutrition director for Tahlequah Public Schools. “Official policy states that at the beginning of the year or if a student starts mid-year, lunches can be charged for one week while we process the forms for reduced-charge and free lunches. Unofficially, we may let them charge for three weeks.”
Kerns said TPS notifies parents through phone calls and written letters sent home with students when lunch accounts are empty or almost so, and that a lunch can be charged if there is even “one cent” in an account. Students can also take a regular lunch if they pay on a delinquent account.
“We usually take a pretty big hit at the beginning of the year, between $5,000 and $6,000,” Kerns said. “We never turn delinquent accounts in for debt collection or legal action. It is important that parents understand we appreciate payment and need it, but we work with parents, and there are situations where we can make exceptions.”
TPS only expects payment on about a quarter of the lunches it serves. Kern’s most recent figures on the school lunch program indicate 75.9 percent of lunches are served to students who qualify for free lunches.
“Another 9.2 percent of our lunches are served to those who qualify for reduced-cost lunches,” she said. “The rest are served at regular price.”
A typical alternative lunch is a peanut butter sandwich, a piece of fruit and a choice of milk or juice.
Keys Public Schools officials also go the extra mile for students.
“We are never going to let a child go without food,” said Billie Jordan, superintendent. “We’re dealing with kids so we have to be flexible. Sure, we have guidelines, but we also have hearts.”
Keys has social workers assist students through the Backpack Food Program.
“We identify kids who may not have enough food at home,” Jordan said. “A social worker sends food home with those kids so there something to eat over the weekend. They stay in contact with those kids over the summer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of needy children in our county.”
Dr. Marilyn Dewoody, Hulbert Public Schools superintendent, said the district staff “does and outstanding job” of communicating lunch account issues with parents and avoiding “alternative lunch” situations.
“We do have a policy that if they have charges for 10 days, we can serve an alternative lunch,” Dewoody said.
“We try to avoid that at all costs. We lose several thousand dollars each year in lunch charges, but no one wants to see a child go hungry. If they are hungry, they aren’t paying attention in class.”
Linda Clinkenbeard, superintendent at Woodall, said the school is in the first year of a pay-as-you-go lunch policy.
“We used to allow students to charge and parents would receive a bill,” she said. “Now parents can bring money and pay in advance. Families have adapted well and been very cooperative, but in turn, we have tried to be somewhat lenient.”
Some schools, such as Norwood, need not pursue student lunch fees. The school meets USDA Provision 3 requirements, and receives federal cash and commodity assistance for lunches.
Norwood cannot charge any students for lunch and must pay any expenses not met by the federal aid. Provision 3 status must be renewed every four years.
To read about a poll of readers’ opinions of what makes for a fair school lunch policy, go to tahlequahTDP.com