MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir, and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Coming up this hour, we'll make some cinema, discover a spaceship and dance in our skivvies, as we continue our theme for you, "Wild Cards" show. But first, we're going to head to school. The cafeteria, to be exact, as we explore a question that's pretty tough to answer. How do we feed our kids who come to school without lunch money? As Jennifer Strong tells us, a lot of it depends on where that school is.
MS. JENNIFER STRONG
It's lunch time at the Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda. A friendly lunch lady calls kids by name and makes sure they put fruits or veggies on their trays. It seems like a pretty routine scene, but nationwide, there's no rule about what should happen in a school cafeteria when a child shows up without lunch money. Unless a family qualifies for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, schools get to figure it out for themselves. Diane Pratt Heavener is with the Maryland based School Nutrition Association.
MS. DIANE PRATT HEAVENER
USDA advises schools that they're not obligated to provide meals to children who forget their lunch money.
You heard that right. In some places, schools don't feed the kids who show up without lunch money and that doesn't break any rules.
In the absence of any guidance, many schools struggle to come to a consensus on how to respond when unpaid meal charges balloon out of control.
In other words, the reason some schools don't feed these kids is they can't afford to. The government doesn't reimburse for food costs, unless the child is covered by the federal meal program. So, schools can wind up spilling a lot of red ink, unless parents pay them back. Most schools use robo-calls to remind parents of their debts.
Some get tough with families and use debt collectors, but this is expensive, and it doesn’t' always work. Diane Pratt Heavener says unpaid lunch bills can quickly pile up and jeopardize a school's entire program.
There are some districts throughout the country that have racked up tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt by allowing students, who don't have money for their meals, to be able to charge meals time and time again.
That's certainly the case in the D.C. public schools. Students owe cafeterias here about 100,000 dollars. This also used to be a problem in Alexandria's public schools. The head of school nutrition there recalls a time when students charged 10,000 dollars worth of food in a single month. Not anymore. Elementary students who come without lunch money receive a cheese sandwich and milk, but that introduces one more thing. Let's call it the cheese sandwich debate.
Those in favor say it allows schools to offer something to a child who would otherwise eat nothing. Critics say it points out to the class which kids don't have money. It's also not as nutritious or filling as what everyone else is getting. Jeffrey Prue heads Nutrition Services for Washington County schools in Maryland.
MR. JEFFREY PRUE
Denying a meal or providing an alternate meal to a child who could be five to eight years old, or 10 years old, could ruin that child for the rest of the school day, and jeopardize instruction over meal charges.
DCPS seems to agree. Despite the debt, all elementary students in the district are fed a complete meal, even if they never bring lunch money. Montgomery County takes something of a hybrid approach. Most of its schools let kids charge meals when they don't have money, up to ten dollars. That's four full priced lunches. After that, kids get the cheese sandwich. Marla Caplan is head of Nutrition Services for the Montgomery County Public Schools. She says some principals go to great lengths to keep that from happening.
MS. MARLA CAPLAN
There are some schools here that really don't want the cheese sandwich to be given. Schools will put money directly on some children's accounts, just to get them so that it won't be at the minus 10 dollars where they can't get a full meal.
Alexandria also tries to ensure kids from lower income families get full meals. It provides free lunches to all students who qualify for a lower price meal under USDA guidelines. Usually, those kids would pay 40 cents. Still, somewhere between junior high and high school, the vast majority of all schools in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia will turn away a student who is unable to pay that day. Schools say by then the kids understand it takes money to buy food. The exceptions are the schools trying out something called Community Eligibility.
Both D.C. and the Washington County Schools are participating in the USDA pilot program. It comes from Michelle Obama's work on school nutrition. Under it, all students receive a full lunch. No money is collected, there's no paperwork for parents. Here's Jeffrey Prue again in Washington County.
This is good for kids. The side benefit to this program is we've eliminated charges at these schools. They do not exist. That does save several thousand dollars a year.
But here's the catch. Since students aren't paying for these meals, the schools get paid through USDA funds. The amount of money a school gets varies greatly. It's based on a complicated formula that includes things like local food stamp data. It's working for three of Prue's schools near Hagerstown, and for 75 schools this fall in D.C. But for most schools, Diane Pratt Heavener says, this program is not an affordable option. Marla Caplan in Montgomery County agrees. She says the county ran the numbers and couldn't make the math work for any of its schools. So it seems debates over cheese sandwiches and how young is too young not to be served in the lunch line won't be over anytime soon. I'm Jennifer Strong.
What's your take on the so called cheese sandwich debate? You can reach us at email@example.com, or find us on Twitter. Our handle is @wamumetro.
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