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Fixing Lunch (Part 1)

Students Denied a School Meal Due to Unpaid Cafeteria Bill

Dave Arnold

Providing free or reduced price lunches for those who can't afford to pay was a godsend for education. I personally witnessed a noticeable improvement in our student's attitudes when our school started a breakfast program. They seemed more alert and cheerful.

Teachers who I spoke with also commented on improved grades and class participation after the program was put in place.

The meals were part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to needy children. The program was established under the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Harry Truman in 1946. It's money well spent.

Still, the system has flaws. And I don't mean burnt french fries or unappetizing menus.

The Economics of Lunch

A few months back, a fellow National Education Association (NEA) member and friend mentioned that their school district had denied two students their breakfast and lunch meals because their parents hadn't paid their cafeteria bill. Hearing this really made me mad!

I was asked not to reveal names or locations regarding this issue because my friend fears that the school's administration may retaliate in some way.

The children involved didn't qualify for free or reduced lunches. But that's not my point. Our students need their daily meals and nutrition to stay healthy, alert and productive in school. This isn't about who pays, but rather that children get fed when at school. 

The two students had charged their breakfast and lunch meals until their bill was larger than the school administration would tolerate: $60.00.  The parents were notified about the situation, but were experiencing financial difficulties and couldn't pay the bill. 

Learning this, the administration had the lunchroom supervisor cut the students off. Just like that. No advanced warning. No private talk on the side to explain the situation.

The students had gotten in line for their meals and were told that they couldn't make a food selection because their parents hadn't paid their bill.

Upon learning this, they sat down at a table and watched their classmates eat their lunch. The entire sequence was repeated the next day.

The Politics of Lunch

My first thought was that of outrage that a school administrator would go as far as to deny students meals just because their parents hadn't paid their bill. I wondered, can this be legal?

So, I asked subscribers of the Education Support Professional's (ESP) ListServ whether they knew if this was legal or not. Well, this opened a whole can of worms.

Aside from the legal aspect, many responders indicated total disbelief that a school wouldn't feed students. I received more than 24 responses to my question on the ListServ. Here's a summary:

  • Some members couldn't believe that school administrators would allow students to attend school and go without their meals.
  • Some said at their school students would be given at least a peanut butter sandwich and milk, or items that were supplied through government commodities.
  • Some didn't feel that it was morally correct to deny a child their meals because of their parents' debt to the school.

UniServ Director Marcus Albrecht of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) checked with NEA legal staff to see if it was legal to deny a student a meal because their parents did not pay their cafeteria bill.

NEA staff investigated the legalities of the issue, including those dealing with child protection services. Two poignant questions arose:

  • Could parents be charged with neglect?
  • Could the school also be guilty of neglect?

Their Daily Bread

The ESP member who told me about the two students was deeply concerned about the children's health and emotional state. Plans had been made to pay for the meals until the parents were able. Eventually, the parents paid their bill and the students are back to eating with their classmates.

If this happened at one school, it could happen at another. The system is flawed.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.