School lunch programs are stuck tryingto balance affordability and nutrition.
What happens in a public school cafeteria when a child forgets to bring lunch money? That depends on where in the region the child goes to school.
There are no federal guidelines for what should happen when a child shows up without lunch money. Unless a family qualifies for free meals under the National School Lunch Program, schools must create their own policy and have a plan for how to pay for it.
"USDA advises schools that they are not obligated to provide meals to children who forget their lunch money," according to Diane Pratt Heavener, a spokeswoman with the Maryland-based School Nutrition Association. "There's very little guidance on the books about how schools should respond. Many schools struggle to come to a consensus when unpaid meal charges balloon out of control."
Most schools use computerized phone 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.
D.C. students owe their public school cafeterias about $100,000. The policy at DCPS is to feed all elementary students a hot lunch, even if they never bring lunch money.
Lunch debt also used to be a problem in Alexandria's public schools. Becky Domokos-Bays directs school nutrition for Alexandria. She can recall a time when students charged $10,000 worth of food in a single month. These days, elementary students who don't receive subsidized meals and come without lunch money receive a cheese sandwich and a carton of milk.
Cheese sandwich policies are controversial. Those in favor say it allows schools to offer something affordable to a child who would otherwise go without. 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.
Most elementary schools in Montgomery County take a hybrid approach by allowing a limited number of charges up to about $10, or the equivalent of four full-priced lunches. After that, kids get the cheese sandwich.
Then sometime 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 that by then the kids understand it takes money to buy food.
The exceptions are the schools trying out something called Community Eligibility. Under the USDA pilot program, all students receive a full lunch. No money is collected. There's no paperwork for parents. However, participating schools get paid through USDA funds, and the amount of money a school gets is based on things like food stamp data.
That system is working for three Washington County 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 is the head of nutrition services for Montgomery County Schools. She says she ran the numbers and could not make the math work for any of the schools she oversees.
So, it seems debates over cheese sandwiches, and how young is too young not to be served in the lunch line, won't be settled anytime soon.
[Music: "Lunch" by The Durutti Column from Keep Breathing]