Local Buzz: Cheese sandwich policy - Some essential ingredients are still missing.

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by Karolyn Tregembo

On July 21st, the U.S. House passed resolution 164 honoring the 40th anniversary of the Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture. Rep. James McGovern (Mass.), who sponsored the resolution which recognizes 40 years of service and contributions to the citizens of this country, applauded the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service for fighting hunger in the United States, but went on to express his concern that more hasn’t been done to work toward President Obama’s campaign pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015.

This is a daunting task, particularly in light of a growing trend among public schools that has come to be known by nonprofits and the media as the “cheese sandwich policy.”

In April, ABC’s Good Morning America reported on an incident in an Albuquerque, N.M. elementary school in which a first grader was pulled out of the lunch line and told she had to eat an alternative lunch due to her parents’ failure to pay for the regular hot lunch. The Albuquerque Public School System enacted this alternative meal policy in January of this year to force delinquent parents to pay up and relieve a then $130,000 school lunch debt.

Denver Public Schools has a similar policy that has been in effect for years. Elementary age children are allowed to charge up to $5.00 worth of meals at $1.40 each. If payment in full is not received the following day, they are given an alternative lunch (a cheese sandwich and milk) and a “healthy snack” every day after. Jennifer Barton, Principal at Teller Elementary School in Denver, said that if a situation arose in which a student was unable to pay for lunch, she would hope that the cafeteria manager would inform the principal. She has not yet been faced with this issue at her current school, but stated she “couldn’t imagine that any principal at an elementary school would let a child go hungry.”

Having worked with low-income middle school students in the past, Principal Barton did say that eating is more of an issue with that age group. Unlike elementary school where there is some flexibility, DPS students in grades 6 and above cannot charge meals at all. According to Barton, Free and Reduced Lunch qualification forms are less likely to be filled out by parents and students may be less likely to speak up when they are going hungry, possibly out of a sense of pride.

Some children would rather go without

than face the humiliation of asking for help.

Jennifer Cook, an area supervisor for DPS Food and Nutrition Services, advised that in at least one area middle school, “if a student doesn’t have money to pay for lunch, they are sent to the school treasurer for a note and the meal is charged to the principal’s account. The cafeteria staff have even used their own money to pay for students to eat.”

The federally funded USDA National School Lunch Program provides assistance in offering free and reduced meals to qualifying students. Most public school districts and food programs receive subsidies that allow them to offer meals at an extremely reduced rate. Denver Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services is entirely self-supporting; they receive no funding directly from the district, only from the NSLP, and operate as a nonprofit.

Parents are required to fill out forms each school year verifying household income levels to determine eligibility that is carried over through the first month of the following school year. Cook explained it is usually early in the year that students in need of the free and reduced school lunch program are identified. Cafeteria personnel can provide forms to students and notify the school administration of any students that may require alternative services.

Morey Middle School in Denver shows 2008 fall enrollment numbers at 841 students and on average 450 lunches are served each day, so only slightly more than half the number of students attending the school are eating a cafeteria prepared lunch. In response Cook mentioned that Morey currently has a 25 to 35 percent rate of student participation in their free breakfast program. “DPS Food & Nutrition Services provides free breakfast to all students in the district at schools that have a breakfast program. There are only a few schools that don’t have a breakfast program, and that is determined by the principal or due to a serious lack of participation.”  The program aids in providing a meal to all students, however, Cook also said that “at the middle and high school levels it is often more difficult to determine if some children are not eating.”

Heather McGuire, a DPS parent said, “I felt awkward at first [about filling out the forms], but I certainly qualified.” Her daughter stated that kids at Morey would sometimes forget their money, but the cafeteria would always feed them. At least one metro-area parent expressed anger that they were not properly notified when they needed to make a payment. Sharron Battistella whose sons attend Adam 12 Schools was furious when she found that her boys had not eaten for several days because their accounts had run low.

School districts claim the alternative lunch tactic works to collect money owed to school food programs that are already operating in the red, but at what cost to children? Not eating could affect not only self-esteem, but also relationships to peers and even learning. A report published in 2006 by the World Food Program on hunger and learning states that “Hunger in childhood can lead to irreversible mental stunting, lower intelligence quotients (IQs) and reduced capacities to learn.”

Educators know that children who eat regular, nutritionally balanced meals perform better in school. A former Albuquerque Public School teacher, who requested to remain anonymous, shared that “Albuquerque had surprisingly huge outstanding bills at the end of the school year because of delinquent accounts. And it tends to be repeat offenders.”

She went on to say that “The parent is ultimately responsible for feeding and clothing their children properly, and should not take advantage of the school system in this manner, but not allowing a student to eat is a lose/lose for everyone. A hungry student is pretty much useless in the classroom.” A point driven home every year during standardized testing when there is a huge push in many schools to feed all of the children breakfast and provide snacks on testing days—snacks often donated by parents or paid for by the teachers.

The reality is, not every family in need qualifies for aid, not every family can afford to pay for school lunch, and some children would rather go without than face the humiliation of asking for help. Even our teachers, administrators and cafeteria personnel are paying out of their own pockets, not only for classroom materials, but also for food so that students are better able to learn.

Audree Munier, a mother of four, summed up the issue with her belief that something needs to be done to take better care of our nation’s children. “The prisoners in our jails cost us about $32,000 a person, while our public school kids get $5,700. We feed and educate criminals but not our children. The laws are set up in such a way that the kids don’t get an increase in funding unless people are willing to pay higher taxes. Pretty dumb considering these are the people that will be taking care of us in the future. We’re not leaving them very many tools to work with.”•