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Published in Print: April 26, 2000, as North Carolina District Puts Lunch Debtors on a Diet

North Carolina District Puts Lunch Debtors on a Diet

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It's not exactly bread and water, but the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district is taking some heat for a new policy that puts students on a diet of soup or peanut butter and jelly until they settle their tabs with the school meals program.

The 99,000-student school system expects to end the year with a $20,000 deficit in its $35 million nutrition program because so many elementary and middle school children aren't paying for meals, according to district administrators. The program ended last school year $15,000 in the red.

So the district is cracking down—still providing indebted students with meals, but limiting their menu options.

The policy, which has been adopted by 15 schools already and becomes mandatory for all elementary and middle schools next fall, has prompted a handful of parents to write angry letters to the district.

But William H. Haygood, the system's director of child-nutrition services, said he expects the plan to stick.

"Public schools get public opinion, and the fact is that a lot of parents feel the meal program should be there whether they pay for it or not," Mr. Haygood said. "This is going to work perfectly, but to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs."

For the past four years, the meals plan has operated on a debit system that assigns each student an account with a personal identification number. Breakfast for middle and elementary school pupils is $1, while an elementary school lunch is $1.75 and a middle school lunch is $1.90.

Parents can send money with their children to be credited to the accounts, Mr. Haygood said, and notices are automatically sent home with the children when their balances runs low.

But that's where the problems began.

"Either the notes never made it home or parents chose not to respond," Mr. Haygood said.

In the meantime, students were allowed to buy meals on credit. Nutrition-program managers were told to enforce a $10 cap on deficit spending for each student, but the order was never official policy and was largely ignored, Mr. Haygood said.

The nutrition program's mounting debt spurred district officials to enact a new plan that lets children go only $5 into debt. At that point, parents are sent written notices again. If they don't respond within two days, their children are put on a limited plan.

When the indebted students bring money, they can order from the regular cafeteria menu. If not, it's juice and toast with butter and jelly for breakfast, and either soup, crackers, and juice or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and juice for lunch.

Students are not asked to repay the cafeteria for the scaled-down meals, and the policy doesn't apply to students in the federal government's free and reduced-price meals program.

Growing Trend?

With more and more districts instituting electronic payment systems in their cafeterias, Charlotte-Mecklenburg's approach is not unusual, said Barry Sackin of the American School Food Service Association.

"They're just being good fiscal managers. The kids come first, but as a district you also reach a point where you say, 'We can't afford to do this,'" said Mr. Sackin, the association's director of government affairs. "On the other hand, as with any other business, there's going to be some uncorrectable debt, but we're not talking about a lot of money."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's policy appears to be working. When it was first put into place at Piney Grove Elementary School, the school sent home a note on a Friday and all but two accounts were paid up the following Monday, according to district officials.

But others say the policy is unfair to students. Mr. Haygood said the district had heard from about nine angry parents so far. "The response has been small, but each letter has been inflamed," he said. "And the students who haven't been paying are the ones whose families can presumably afford to pay."

Vol. 19, Issue 33, Page 7

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