When school lunch is hard to swallow

Long familiar with school children who haven’t had money for extras, Shenandoah County parent Heidi Flynn has at times given her son extra money to share with classmates who otherwise couldn’t buy ice cream at lunchtime.

“That child that never gets it, that breaks my heart,” Flynn said. “Ice cream’s a big deal.”

But she said she was stunned to learn school division staff had singled out her son’s classmates when they couldn’t afford lunch.

“He says, ‘Mom, I see my classmates cry all the time,'” she recalled. “‘[Staff members] take their lunch away from them and throw it away [and] give them a cheese sandwich.'”

Flynn said she posted her concerns on Facebook so she could learn if other parents had heard of similar experiences from their own children, and she received similar stories in reply.

“It’s not just in our community, it’s everywhere,” she said. “So we can’t just throw stones at our school. There’s something being missed here across the board.”

Stories like these usually start when a child with a school lunch account goes through the lunch line only to discover the account is overdrawn.

In those cases, said Beverly Polk, food service supervisor for Shenandoah County Public Schools, schools charge the child’s family for a less expensive lunch — a cheese sandwich and a serving of milk.

Not exclusive to area schools, alternative lunch procedures are in practice around the country. Some divisions charge cheese sandwiches; some charge other foods.

With help from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that reimburses schools for serving more complete meals, Warren County Public Schools offers elementary school children a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich lunch alternative, with two vegetables, two fruits and milk.

Frederick County Public Schools serves an alternative meal that complements its usual meal of meat or a meat alternative, grain, milk, fruit and vegetables.

The alternative includes three of those five components, said Steve Edwards, coordinator of policy and communications for schools.

“It’s what’s being served,” he said. “It’s just that their choice might be limited.”

Instead of pizza or spaghetti, he said the lunch alternative might waive the option of pizza.

“It’s a bit of an incentive for the child to pay,” Edwards said.

Frederick, Warren and Shenandoah schools all have automated systems that alert families if the funds in their school lunch accounts are getting low. When accounts reach zero, lunch managers begin calling families and schools start mailing home reminders to pay.

Starting this fall, an automatic phone messaging system will save Shenandoah’s food service managers from having to place calls, Polk said.

“I’m hoping it will [help],” she said. “It will save me money as far as cafeteria staff making calls.”

Aware of the practices of other divisions, Edwards said Frederick County schools sometimes do serve cheese sandwiches, but only if it’s part of that day’s menu.

“We try not to single students out as best we can,” he said. “And we want to make sure they get that reimbursable meal.”

Reimbursement from the federal government is why Warren schools can provide fruit and vegetables with its cheese sandwiches and milk, said SueAnn Fox, food and nutrition services coordinator for Warren schools, but it’s only a partial reimbursement and doesn’t cover much.

Alternative meals start only after a family has failed to pay and continued to charge meals against the food service budget up to a certain threshold — $10 for Warren, $15 for Frederick and $25 for Shenandoah. In some cases, bills continue to climb, despite schools’ attempts to obtain payment for charged lunches.

Food service departments might end the school year with a negative balance of unpaid lunches, ultimately leaving them less funding in coming years, and students might begin a new school year with a negative balance, Fox said.

“That’s why it’s so important that a school district maintain a successful food service program,” Fox said. “The money has to come from somewhere.”

Some districts can’t recoup losses from previous school years, she said. So they base the contents of their alternative lunch programs on what they can afford.

Food service funds are self-supporting and pay for everything from food to staff to utility bills using what they charge for school breakfasts and lunches and what they receive in state or federal funding, Polk explained.

“We are not funded by the county,” Polk said. “A lot of people are not aware of that.”

As of June 15, unpaid lunches in the 2014-15 school year have cost Shenandoah schools more than $3,427, which Polk said is “probably less than usual.”

When accounts remain unpaid, she said, “Food service has to eat it.”

Still, resorting to the cheese sandwich plan is a rotten situation for any school division, Fox said. “It’s the hardest part of the job, because we’re there to feed children and that is our goal.”

“We do really try to let people know ahead of time,” she said. “The cheese sandwich is the absolute last ditch effort.”

Concerned less about the cheese sandwich than the idea that schools would waste food and embarrass children, Flynn said she saw such situations as a tool that uses children when all other means of contacting parents have failed.

“Thank goodness they’re being fed, so there’s that side, but on the other side they’re not using that in that manner,” Flynn said. “They’re using that to embarrass that child, to degrade them, to demoralize them in front of their peers so that they go to their parents and their parents get pissed off enough to pay that bill, or to get embarrassed. It’s being used as a tool. If they were meant to feed the children, that tray would not be thrown away.”

Usually school staff members in Warren County are successful in notifying children if they’re set to receive a cheese sandwich alternative for lunch, but Fox acknowledged mistakes sometimes happen and students forget their account is overdrawn before heading through the lunch line.

“Once they have a tray in their hand, that is what they eat,” Fox said. “We don’t take a tray away and give them a cheese sandwich.”

Polk said she was unaware of the particular instances that Flynn related happening at her son’s school, but said school staff in Shenandoah should not be taking away and throwing out food when accounts exceed the negative $25 threshold of delinquency.

Instead of taking away food, she said, “We would charge it.”

Applications are available for those who cannot afford full-price school lunches, and Fox encouraged applications even for those who have already applied with the government for funding — just in case there’s a delay in federal funding.

In Shenandoah County, 43 percent of students are on the free or reduced cost list, with some schools close to 50 percent. Warren has 42 percent in the program, though more might qualify.

Robin Shrum, principal at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Strasburg, where some area complaints originated, said she has started her own accounts at the school for children she knew didn’t have money for lunch, but she said the answer isn’t that simple.

“The policy’s broken, because it’s never the kids’ fault,” she said.

A division-wide fund started by community members feeds Shenandoah children who cannot pay for breakfast, though Polk said no consistent lunch fund exists at every county school.

So Flynn has been looking into starting a fund for school lunches to provide “a breather” for children.

“I can’t change how a parent is. I can’t change what their situation is,” she said. ” … But what I can change and what we can change as a community is that child’s well-being of them getting a meal, and … not being degraded like that. I think that is more of an issue than the cheese sandwich.”

“Like I said, they’re still getting fed,” she said. “Maybe it’s not a complete meal. But what they have to do to swallow that white bread is disgusting.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com