The children denied school lunches in Salt Lake City, Utah is almost as sad as that heartrending scene in Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist.
Poor little orphaned Oliver, stuck inside a cruel workhouse where he and others are underfed and hungry, dares to approach the mean man doling out the watery lunch porridge. Holding up his bowl, he says, “Please, sir, I want some more.” The man, enraged by Twist’s plea, hauls off and punches the poor kid.
In late January, at the Salt Lake City elementary school, 40 children in the lunch line filled their lunch trays. When the lunch officials noticed those children’s lunch accounts had outstanding balances, the trays were taken from the children and the food tossed in the trash. Lunch-line workers are not allowed to re-serve food that has been placed on trays. The children were given fruit and milk instead of the hot lunches. That despicable incident caused nationwide outrage. And rightfully so. The school-lunch manager has been placed on administrative leave.
The very idea of taking food from a hungry child is hard to fathom in this day and age. Why should children be punished for their parents’ irresponsibility? Or, in some hardship cases, for parents’ inability to pay?
What’s really disturbing is there are 46 school districts right here in Minnesota with policies that can and do refuse hot lunches to students if their lunch accounts are delinquent. In most cases, those students are given alternate lunches, such as a sandwich and milk. Some lunch workers in some districts even stamp children’s hands with the words “LUNCH” or “MONEY” so they’ll remember to remind their parents to pay up. This sounds about as cruel, arbitrary and spiteful as anything that can be found in the pages of Oliver Twist.
The policy at Sartell schools is to allow up to three charges for hot lunches by students whose accounts are empty. After that, they are given a sandwich (choice of cheese or peanut butter) and a carton of milk. A similar policy is also in place at schools in the St. Cloud School District, including Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph.
Some lunch programs, wisely, use a discreet method to handle the situation. Children whose accounts are empty are given bagged lunches before they get to the lunch room, thus sparing them the humiliation of having their lunch trays confiscated in front of them.
Local lunch officials say denying hot lunches to children doesn’t happen very often. Repeated efforts are made to remind parents the accounts are dwindling or empty. Such reminders include emailing and/or telephoning twice a week.
However, policy or no policy, snatching even one hot-lunch tray from a student, then trashing the food in front of that hungry child is unforgivable. It should never be done, not even once, period!
The Legal Aid Society of Minnesota recently did a survey of all school districts in the state. Ninety-four percent of school districts (309) responded. Here are the results:
165 districts offer less-nutritious alternative meals in lieu of providing a hot lunch or turning a child away. Sartell and St. Cloud have policies similar to this one.
98 districts (three cheers for them) always provide a full menu-of-the-day hot lunch to a low-income child even if that child or his parents cannot afford the lunch fee.
46 districts have policies of immediate or eventual refusal to serve a hot lunch to a student who cannot afford the 40-cent co-pay for the reduced-price lunch.
Of course, it’s the responsibility of parents to pay for their children’s lunches. And, obviously, lunch programs cannot play the role of constant bill collectors. It’s even understandable, somewhat, that children be given bagged lunches, but only discreetly before they go through the lunch line.
The St. Cloud and Sartell-St. Stephen school boards – along with all boards in the state – should revisit their lunch policies immediately. Local schools seem to be handling the problem fairly well. However, every lunch policy should ensure no child – ever! – should have to go through the humiliation and red-faced shame of placing food items on his or her tray, only to have the tray’s contents taken away and trashed. Shame on any lunch program that would allow such cruelty.