Cold meal for kids behind on their lunch fee

EDMONDS — Fish nuggets, chicken burgers and taco hot pockets are on the menu today in Edmonds elementary schools.

Because of a new money-saving measure, a cold cheese sandwich is all some kids could get.

In an effort to recoup $207,763 in unpaid lunch fees from last year, the Edmonds School District is taking food away from kids who owe lunch money. After students go through the lunch line and fill their trays with food, cashiers at all Edmonds schools are supposed to check and see if each student owes money. If a student owes at least $10 and can’t pay for lunch, the cashier is supposed to replace the student’s tray with a sandwich of cheddar cheese on whole-grain bread and no drink.

Because of food safety concerns, the cashiers are supposed to throw away the food on confiscated trays and save the milk, which is packaged individually, said Sara Conroy, interim director of food service.

When school started last week, 2,750 students owed $10 or more. After five days, $45,269 has been repaid from 961 students, according to the district.

“We can’t continue — day after day after day after day — to pay for these lunches and to provide a child with a lunch without getting payment,” Conroy said. “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?”

The policy has upset some cafeteria workers who believe they’re humiliating kids by taking lunch away. Staff at Hazelwood Elementary in Lynnwood have been donating money to buy lunches for kids who would otherwise be served a sandwich, cashier Barbara Burley said. The donations won’t last much longer. Burley said she will refuse to take milk and fruit away from young kids.

“They’re children and it’s not their fault,” said Burley, who has worked at Hazelwood for six years. “For some of these kids, it’s the only decent meal they get in a day. Could you do it? Could you look into a kindergartner’s eyes and take away their lunch and give them a cold cheese sandwich and nothing else? I just can’t. If I lose my job over it, OK.”

Other schools in Snohomish County have similar policies, but most give kids fruit and a drink in addition to a sandwich.

In Mukilteo schools, students can receive up to five lunches and five breakfasts without paying. Students who keep forgetting their money are then given a sandwich, milk, fruit and vegetables, spokesman Andy Muntz said. In Monroe, students can charge two meals and then are given a cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk.

In Everett elementary schools, students who haven’t paid for three meals are given either a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich or a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk. Middle and high school students are given that meal each time they can’t pay for lunch. Students in Everett schools pay before they go through the meal line, so kids owing money know to avoid the standard lunch and don’t have to be singled out as much, said Debbie Webber, Everett’s food nutrition manager.

Federal laws aimed at making sure kids eat balanced meals require school staff to review lunches before children eat. That’s why the cashier is at the end of the lunch line in Edmonds schools, district spokeswoman Debbie Jakala said. Everett schools have a staff member at the end of the line who reviews each child’s lunch, Webber said.

Unpaid lunches haven’t affected the Everett School District’s general fund, spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said.

“We want kids to eat,” she said. “We want them to have nutritious food. We also know that we can’t be running a debt and students have a certain level of responsibility for making sure they’re paying for those meals.”

Years ago, middle and high school students who came to school in Edmonds without money wouldn’t receive any lunch at all, Jakala said. Elementary students were given a sandwich.

In 2004, the district changed its policy to allow students to charge as many meals as they wanted and still receive a hot lunch. Some families incurred hundreds of dollars worth of debt, Jakala said. With budget cuts looming this year, district staff decided they needed to do something to reclaim the money.

Over the summer, they mailed letters to parents about the change in policy, and the rising cost of school meals, which range from $1.75 for breakfast at an elementary school to $4 for a high school lunch. The district also left automated voicemail messages for parents whose children owed money, Jakala said.

“Without question, this is a difficult thing to implement — and we’re trying to strike a very solid balance between being fiscally responsible and making sure kids are fed,” she said.

Many of the kids who owe money would qualify for free lunches through a government program for low-income families. The difficulty is getting parents to fill out the paperwork and enroll their kids, Jakala said. Those forms were mailed to parents this summer, and are also available on the district’s Web site, www.edmonds.wednet.edu.

The district has noticed a spike in applications for the free and reduced-price lunch program. So far this school year, 1,128 students have been approved for the program, compared with 623 at the same time last year.

However, many parents who don’t meet income guidelines to qualify for free lunches still struggle with money, said Crystal FitzSimons, a director at the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit group that focuses on public nutrition policies. In order to qualify for free meals, a family of three cannot earn more than $23,000.

“When you think of rent and transportation costs and food-at-home cost and child-care costs — it’s very difficult for families to break even,” she said. “We would encourage the school to reconsider.”

Burley said she understands that the district is in a tough spot, and she doesn’t want parents taking advantage of the system. She sent her children and her grandkids to Hazelwood, and she can’t bear the thought of kids being punished for their parents’ mistakes.

“At least give them milk,” she said.

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or kmanry@heraldnet.com.

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