Lee student’s food account causes cafeteria conundrum

April 08–SANFORD — After cafeteria staff at a local elementary school took away a young boy’s lunch because of a small debt, the boy’s mother is equating those actions with the bullying schools typically preach against.

Jami Kennedy said her son, a second-grade student at Greenwood Elementary School, ran out of money on his account last week but forgot to tell her. The next day, according to Kennedy, her son was served lunch — but when a cafeteria worker saw he had a negative amount in his account, she took his tray and threw away all the food he had just been given.

He was then given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a replacement for the hot meal that was taken, Kennedy said, and other children began teasing him for it.

“We teach our children not to bully and not to be this way, and over 80 cents, we have this,” Kennedy said, noting that she lives two miles away from the school and could easily have come in and paid, if only someone had told her instead of relying on her son to remember to let her know.

“It shows the other kids in line that this kid doesn’t have money, and they should pick on him because he’s poor,” she said. “They don’t think that the mom just forgot to send money in.”

Greenwood Principal Vicki Haislip said the cafeteria workers actually just set the lunch aside and didn’t throw it away, but everyone agrees the boy’s lunch was taken away after he had been served. Haislip said she’s sorry for that, and so are the cafeteria workers.

“It was an unfortunate circumstance, and we are sorry that it happened, and that it ever happens,” she said, although she added that when it does happen, it’s because the staff are following rules that are out of their control.

Vicky Matthews, child nutrition director for Lee County Schools, said she spoke with both Kennedy and workers at the school cafeteria to get to the bottom of the issue, and that she later settled Kennedy’s son’s account herself.

Kennedy, for her part, said she still dislikes the policy but is satisfied with the response and now understands the cafeteria staff’s predicament better. She said a school employee told her some children will take advantage of leniency to get food without paying, so they have to be strict.

Haislip said she has a personal fund that she lets children use in special circumstances, both for rewards and in times of need, but there’s no general back-up fund that automatically kicks in to cover overdrawn accounts. Haislip, though, said she would love to see the school district create something such as that — especially since it’s one of the few changes actually possible at the county level.

“I just wish we would go to a system where every child gets lunch, but that’s a question that has to be answered at a much larger level,” she said. “We can’t address that locally.”

Kennedy also called for changes, saying it’s sad public schools are so cash-strapped they have to closely monitor debts — even those that are less than $1, like her son’s.

“I mean, it’s just absurd,” she said. “We give prisoners free food, and we can’t even give kids food if they owe 80 cents?”

However, discussions such as that must happen at the national level because the federal government oversees school food programs. And Matthews, a longtime deputy in the nutrition department who took over the top spot last month, said local schools have considered smaller changes.

Having students pay before being served, she said, could cut down on the embarrassment of a student having a lunch taken back in front of other students. Nothing has come about yet, but Matthews said it’s one thing she’ll be looking into more this summer.

When students can’t pay for a hot lunch, they still are required to receive a peanut butter and jelly or cheese sandwich. Yet when school’s not in, hundreds of local children can’t even count on getting that much.

About two-thirds of Lee County’s 10,000-plus public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school. Outside of school, some of their families rely on food banks or other charity. There’s also Backpack Pals through Communities In Schools of Lee County, which aims to feed children who might not otherwise eat over the weekends.

That program gives kids backpacks filled with around a dozen non-perishable, easy-to-fix meals or snacks every Friday. It began in 2008 serving 40 children at three schools. It now serves 350 kids at 10 schools, including every elementary school.

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