Schools comment after Utah lunch fiasco

School lunches (WISH Photo)
School lunches (WISH Photo)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – After a Utah school district came under heavy scrutiny for tossing out the lunches of students whose lunch accounts were behind on payments, I-Team 8 requested policy information from dozens of school districts throughout central Indiana.

Of the several districts that did reply before news time, some acknowledged that they in fact throw away lunches from students who fall behind or are running deficits in their lunch accounts.

But nearly all stated that they provided some form of alternate meal. Most districts send home advance notices, letters or emails to notify parents that accounts are running low. Other districts call parents or end up providing students with peanut butter or cheese sandwiches as an alternative when parents refuse to pay or simply can’t afford to do so, according to a review of the responses sent to I-Team 8.

Rusty King, who is the superintendent for North West Hendricks School Corporation in Lizton, Ind., said his district doesn’t throw out lunches, nor does it allow any of its 1,900 students to go hungry.

“Again, it’s bad press. It looks bad on schools because most schools would not do something like that,” King said, referring to the incident in Utah.

King said his district is blessed because not only does it run a solvent food service program, it’s actually profitable, which allows the district to replace equipment as it’s needed. (In talking with King, he admits other school districts aren’t as fortunate – some he says have to use money from the general fund to help make up the difference).

Miranda Waters, a parent in the North West Hendricks district, is a mother of three and was concerned after learning about the situation in Utah.

“I was appalled to think that a school would not allow their students to eat because somebody a parent was behind. That money was over the health of a student. That would upset me,” Waters said.

King, whose son attends Tri-West Middle School in Hendricks County, said he keeps track of his son’s expenses through an online application.

“I can add funds through credit card, debit or I can also send in a check and they add it to his account. So I’m watching very carefully,” King said, noting that his eighth grader sometimes racks up lunch meals of $8 or more.

King says because his district is in small community – a student population of 1900 among five schools – parents are sometimes reluctant to admit they need help cover the cost of school lunches. Instead of signing up for free and reduced lunch, King says sometimes his staff members will step up and pitch to cover the cost to make sure a student doesn’t go without.

Administrators with both Merrillville and Eastbrook school districts confirmed to I-Team 8 that they do indeed throw away meals and replace them with either cheese or peanut butter sandwiches.

Charity Elliott, the food service director at Southwestern Consolidated Schools in Shelby County, said in an email to I-Team 8 that her district “allows a child to go through the line a couple of times if their account is zero.

“Some students have eaten a peanut butter meal for a week and it breaks my heart. It isn’t unheard of for one of my lunch ladies or staff members to cover a lunch for a student.”

Representatives from the larger school districts, including IPS, did not respond to requests for comment.

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