The first few times a second-grader enters the cafeteria with no money and no lunch of their own, workers give them a tray of whatever is being served that day, but eventually they have to draw a line.
Each time the student receives a lunch without paying, the school sends a note home to their parents, letting the family know that the amount needs to be repaid. If the amount remains unpaid and the student keeps coming to school without money or a meal, their menu is set: a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, a carton of milk and possibly a side of fruit.
Schools don’t want children to go hungry, especially not in elementary school, when their parents forget or can’t afford to pay for lunch. But at some point, schools have to make a cutoff and require families to pay.
Depending on the school system, the cutoff ranges from two or three times for elementary students, one or two times for middle school students and possibly once, if at all, for high school students, Franklin and Greenwood food service directors Jill Overton and Cheryl Hargis said.
Earlier this year a school in Utah made national headlines after lunches were taken away from students because they didn’t have money in their lunch accounts. Overton and Hargis said this wouldn’t happen at Greenwood or Franklin schools.
Both school districts want to make sure students are fed so they can concentrate on their schoolwork, they said.
“We certainly don’t want to make a big deal out of it, so to speak,” Overton said. “It’s not, particularly at the elementary level, the child’s fault that the money’s not in their account. So we try to keep it as low-key and discrete as possible.”
The regular cost of lunch at Greenwood and Franklin ranges between $2.25 and $2.45, while the cost for students who received a reduced-price lunch program is 40 cents. Parents buying lunch for their students typically prepay those amounts into an account at their schools.
At Franklin schools, cafeteria managers try to give parents advance notice when their child’s lunch account is running low. Food service workers check the balances of students’ lunch accounts twice each week, and letters are sent to families whose students pay the full price for lunch once their balance drops below $10, and families paying a reduced price receive notice once the account drops below $2, Overton said.
At lunch, cafeteria workers at the elementary and middle schools watch to make sure all students have a meal that will keep them full enough to focus on school. If they notice a child who isn’t eating, or if they or a teacher see a child eating a lunch of chips or cookies and nothing else, then they’ll give that student a sandwich as well, the food service directors said.
Once students reach high school, they’re expected to take on more responsibility in managing their lunch accounts.
At Greenwood, high school students have to pay in advance before receiving a tray of whatever is being served that day, though they can still receive a peanut butter or cheese sandwich if they arrive at school without money, Hargis said.
High school students at Franklin can receive one meal without paying for it, and after that they have to repay their balance before being served again, Overton said.
“They’re getting almost to adulthood, and we like for them to take some responsibility,” Overton said.