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"I think all told, it was five or six times that my sons ended up with no lunch," Cotting said.
Cotting said both of her sons are on the same account to pay for their lunch every day. She said on more than one occasion, one or both of the boys would reach the end of the line with their trays full of hot food when the cafeteria cashier told them there wasn’t enough money in the account to cover their meal. Cotting said the food was thrown out, and her sons were handed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
"They felt humiliated. They felt shamed," Cotting said. "For them it was a nasty surprise during the school day because they had no idea where the lunch account balance was."
Stories like Cotting’s led PTO secretary Angie Stinnett to push for new policies.
"It's embarrassing, and then they're afraid to get back in the line, afraid that it's going to happen again," Stinnett said.
Stinnett has gone to district administration, asking them to eliminate the so-called “lunch of shame” and serve all kids the same meal, whether they have money in their account or not. An online petition has more than 400 people supporting the cause.
"I don't care if it works. We can find another way that works that doesn't embarrass children," Stinnett said.
Waterloo district administrator Connie Schiestel said the policy wasn’t created to embarrass kids.
According to current policies, students who are not able to pay for full-priced lunches are served an alternative lunch of a sandwich and milk. That meal is served to any child in fifth through 12th grade for up to three days. If parents do not replenish their account within those three days, schools do not serve the child.
Schiestel said under USDA law, school districts make their own rules of how to handle empty accounts. That means districts could deny lunch altogether to any student with a negative balance if that’s how they chose to do it.
"The fact that we have few negative balances, I think, does speak to the fact that this has been very consistent," Schiestel explained. "Here's our policy, this is what happens, and the parents have responded by making sure that their accounts, they have been responsible."
Schiestel said when a child’s account is less than $10, those students are sent home with daily written notices, warning parents of the low balance. Parents are also supposed to receive emails if the account reaches that level.
Schiestel added lunches that cannot be covered by a negative account have to be thrown away since the food cannot be served to another student under health department requirements.
Schiestel said the policies in place have prevented debt from unpaid lunch fees, which would have to be made up with funds from the school’s other operational budgets. While the current rules have proved to be effective, Schiestel said the district is up for looking at other options.
"If there is a better way to work through this and to still run a viable lunch program, we're certainly willing to make that effort," Schiestel said.
The district’s policy committee recommended the Waterloo school board do away with the alternative lunch and serve kids the meal they came up to the cashier with.
School board members will have their first reading on the policy changes Monday. If they vote to adopt the new rules, the district will run a trial period on the policy for the last eight weeks of this school year. At that point, the school board will reassess any acquired debts and make a decision on permanent policies.
Cotting said she never got an email warning from the district about her boys’ low balance. Regardless, she said the way the district deals with the issue is unacceptable.
"There is no excuse for a school to make a child suffer in an attempt to try to control the parents. Find another way," Cotting said.
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