Selling school lunches is unlike most typical consumer transactions. Schools are juggling tight budgets, federal regulations, and families who sometimes fall behind on payments—sometimes because of simple miscommunication, and other times because they can’t squeeze any more out of a paycheck. If people miss a few too many car payments, banks repossess their vehicles. But it’s a little more challenging to punish children for their parents’ lack of payment.
The adage “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” took on a very real meaning in Salt Lake City this week after a cafeteria worker took freshly served meals out of the hands of about 40 elementary school students whose families were behind on their payments and threw them in the trash. After a flurry of anger on social media, the district placed the responsible cafeteria director on paid leave while it investigates, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported.
Sens. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, and Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, even held a press conference outside the school, calling the incident “bullying,” the paper reported.
A district spokesman said in a previous story that the elementary school needed to resolve the issue of a large number of students with unpaid lunch tabs.
As a result, the child-nutrition manager visited the school and decided to withhold lunches to deal with the issue, he said. But cafeteria workers weren't able to see which children owed money until they had already received lunches, Olsen explained. The workers then took those lunches from the students and threw them away, he said, because once food is served to one student it can't be served to another. Children whose lunches were taken were given milk and fruit instead."
Parents claimed they weren’t warned about the district’s plans. Some said they weren’t aware they were behind on meal payments.
It’s clear that unpaid lunch debts are a real problem without an easy solution. Districts have instituted “lunch detentions,” pulled students with unpaid balances from extracurricular activities, and even hired collection agencies to recover unpaid lunch debts.
Could someone please convene a summit of highly skilled economists, school administrators, family therapists, marketing specialists, and child development experts to solve this problem?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.