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Fixing Lunch (Part 2)

Students Denied a School Meal Due to Unpaid Cafeteria Bill

Dave Arnold

Adults are supposed to understand debt. Pay your light bill or your electricity gets turned off. Pay your car note or it gets repossessed. Pay your rent or you get kicked out into the street.  

Adults know this. Kids don't. So is it reasonable to expect junior high students to understand a school policy that denies them school meals because their parents have unpaid bills with the school? Depends on who you ask.

I heard about two students who did not qualify for free or reduced meals, and who were denied school meals because their parents had accumulated school debt. The parents had been warned of the consequences, but still didn't pay their bill.

What's Legal

This raised some legal, moral and social questions involving the school's administration of the program: whether to feed the two students or not, and how to go about collecting unpaid funds from parents. Also, what is a school's responsibility in the distribution of federal resources?

To my surprise, the school was within their legal rights to deny the students and hold their parents accountable, according to National Education Association's (NEA) sources. While the school is responsible for a student's safety while they are at school, parents are responsible for a child's basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Thus, when a parent knowingly allows their child to go without food for a certain period of time (the time limit differs from state to state) then it could be interpreted as child neglect.

Most schools will give a child a peanut butter sandwich and carton of milk or something when they have forgotten their lunch money or can't pay for a meal. However, when charging lunches becomes chronic, most schools put their foot down in some way.

The $18,000 Question


When I asked education support professionals (ESP) who belong to the NEA ListServ about whether the school should continue feeding students whose parents don't pay their school bill, one person reported that their school district had more than $18,000 in unpaid lunch bills. This person supported the school's position in holding parents accountable for unpaid bills by denying their children anymore "free" meals.

In my own school district in Illinois, students are allowed to charge their meals. If the parents don't pay up by the end of the fiscal school year, the district takes them to court and arranges payment with the help of a judge.

One Week Grace Period

A school employee from Louisiana, Terri Prough, agrees with not serving students who have accumulated large lunch bills.

"I would let them get behind for no more than a week," she says. "Then I would refuse to feed them. I have worked in elementary, junior high, and high schools and it is always the same old story. The parents do not pay lunch bills, yet they give their children money for the concession stands that we open the last 10 minutes of every lunch period. These kids come to school with $5, $10, $20 for concessions. If they have money for that, they can surely pay for their lunch. Our lunch costs $1.10. Snacks cost $1.00."

Terri makes a very good point. And parents may be sending money for school lunches, but then students decide on their own to hit the snack machines instead of the lunch line.

Eat Now, Pay Later

The National School Lunch Program was established in 1946.  You would think that after 62 years we would be able to have the bugs worked out.

Aside from legal obligations by parents and the school, there is a moral obligation by all involved to feed our children during a school day. Some schools give them a sandwich and some don't. Some schools have a set cut off point on charging school lunches and some don't. Some allow them to continue charging meals and then collect through court litigation.

While on an elk hunt in Colorado I became engrossed with the pursuit of my quarry and neglected eating anything for almost 12 hours. Then it hit me. My body felt weak and my head was pounding. I hardly had the strength to return to camp. I was hungry.

At school, children get hungry. They should be fed so they can learn their school lessons to the best of their ability.

(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.