My son ran out of money in his school lunch account last year, and it didn’t end well. The cafeteria worker threw away his food in front of all of the kids in line and sent him to the office. Once there, he was instructed to call me. He was in absolute tears as he explained over the phone what had happened. He was humiliated.
Is this story beginning to sound familiar? It may, as I’m not alone. We are hearing more and more stories like this, as schools are cracking down on students (really, parents) whose prepaid lunch accounts run out.
What does it look like when a school denies lunch to a student? Although an elementary-school age boy, my son is fairly stoic. He doesn’t cry unless the situation is remarkably bad. Answering the phone to hear him crying sent me into an alarmed state that immediately turned into fury.
His running out of money in his prepaid lunch account was my fault. Therefore it would be fair to say that I was alarmed, then embarrassed, then furious. Here’s why:
I usually send $40 at a time to stock up his account, but I’d apparently let it run low. We aren’t on a reduced cost lunch plan, so his lunch runs roughly $2.25 each, depending on what he selects that day. Although the school is supposed to send home a little note with something along the lines of “Your child owes $0.40, please restock their account immediately,” they just hadn’t this time.
I’m familiar with that note, honestly. The kids are allowed to charge two meals over their limit before they are refused lunch. Since they use up their funds at varying rates depending on what they purchase, it’s actually two charges that they can go over, the first therefore possibly being as little as a nickel. In any case, the notes home give parents two chances to restock their account and I’m appreciative of that reminder.
Do they have to remind me? They shouldn’t have to, but I’m happy when they do, because sometimes I need the heads up that he’s out of money. Sometimes the money I send lasts months, sometimes weeks. I’m never sure where he is in his account.
But this time? No warning. For either of us.
I offered to drive the two minutes to the school and pay right that second but the school refused. They said he had missed lunch at this point and he would have to return to class without eating.
Students are given roughly 30 minutes for lunch. After standing in line and all of the hullabaloo involved in getting dozens of kids seated, that meant his trip to the office and the five minutes it would take me to get in the car and get there left him no time to eat.
That was when I became angry.
The school was sending a lesson to me through my crying son. My rule-abiding, gifted program attending, team-player, proud son. They made him stand in the office and explain through humiliated tears on the phone to his mom about what her oversight had done. And they refused to let me fix it so he could eat.
So I drove to the office and checked him out of the school for the rest of the day.
Look, I completely understand the need for the policies of denying lunch. Had I realized he had gone over his prepaid account, I would have sent a check the next day and refilled it. Absolutely. That’s the deal. They run out of money, you let us know, we fix it immediately.
But they didn’t let us know. And they wouldn’t let me fix it that moment. And they humiliated him to make a point.
Would I rather they have sent a discrete note home letting me know he was denied lunch that day? Honestly, I don’t know. I may have been more angry knowing they didn’t let me know they were making him go hungry and, therefore, denying my chance to remove him from the school.
What I would have liked them to do was to send a note home letting me know his account had run out. Or, even better, if they would let us know when their accounts are running low.
Seriously, the best option would be for me to send him $40 on the same day every month and let his account build up. I shouldn’t wait until it’s running low. I get that.
Though taking responsibility for our mistake did not lessen my frustration. Because I tend to be passive-aggressive and then don’t understand why my targets don’t catch my drift, my husband called the school himself to address the issue.
To our school’s credit, and this is important, the Vice Principal to whom my husband spoke was embarrassed. He agreed that the school handled everything about the incident the wrong way and that they would learn from it, ensuring us that it would not happen again. Presumably for any student.
As far as I know, it hasn’t happened again. We’ve definitely received a couple of notes saying one of the kids’ accounts was overdrawn (usually by less than $1), to which we responded by immediately restocking the account.
As I mentioned, this happened last year. It never occurred to me to write about it (or tell anyone about it) because I was embarrassed. I was surprised when I began to see mainstream news stories about children being denied lunch for running over their limit.
People that are apparently unlike me were going to their local news to complain. I was trying to pretend it hadn’t happened because, I can’t stress this enough, we were humiliated. And did I mention embarrassed?
But maybe it’s worth mentioning. Policies like this are rolling out across the nation and parents are outraged. Are they outraged because of the policies themselves or how schools are enforcing them? Because there must be a better way to handle these kinds of occasional oversights while still addressing the rampant problem of seriously and habitually overdrawn accounts.
In the meantime? Lesson learned.
No, really, the crying child on the phone? Well played.
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