The disposal of approximately 40 school lunches at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City last week, has caught the attention of many people across the nation.
According to reports, several students passed through the lunch line just to find out that they would not be allowed to eat due to negative lunch account balances. Although the children had full trays of food, cafeteria employees forced the students to dump the lunches in the trash because of outstanding balances.
Since the incident occurred, the Uintah Elementary cafeteria manager has been placed on administrative leave. Although the employees actions seem harsh, according to Carbon School District Child Nutrition Director Patti Rigby, the worker was only following federal guidelines.
“There are strict guidelines for everything when it comes to school lunch,” Rigby explained. “I know that this is not the first incident in Utah. It’s been happening for about four years now. We never have and never will make a child dump their tray.”
Several claims of similar incidents have been reported from other states as well. Although the accusations seem ludicrous, the fact is, it’s happening.
Rigby can’t speak for individuals making these decisions, but she feels that they stem from the strict federal lunch guidelines. “Everything is monitored so closely,” she explained. “There are even rules on what color of fruits and vegetables we serve daily.”
No matter the reason for other school’s actions, Rigby vows that students in the Carbon School District will never have their trays filled with food then thrown away. “We have a strict account policy which allows only a $5 deficit in the junior highs and high school,” she explained. “This means when a student reaches a negative $5 balance, they will be informed prior to service of the amount. The student may then borrow money or pay for that days meal.”
Students are warned when lunch balances are low. Reminders are then given daily and a note is sent home once an account enters the red. Phone calls are also made once a balance becomes extremely delinquent. “We do everything we can to collect the debt, but we do not want a child to go hungry in the process,” Rigby explained. “We accept any monetary effort to pay delinquent accounts and encourage parents to file for free or reduced lunch anytime during the school year.”
Sheila Koss is the lunch manager at both Mont Harmon Junior High and Carbon High. She explained that very seldom does she witness a student skip lunch because of a negative account balance. “Usually when I tell them they need to borrow money from a friend for lunch, they come up with the funds,” she explained. “We are even able to transfer money from one student to another.”
Although credit card machines are not available at every school, parents are able to contact the district office with payment information. Lunch balances are also readily accessible on the district’s SIS program that is accessed through their webpage. “We try to make account information available to parents,” Rigby explained. “The SIS program is an easy way for us to track balances and it allows parents to follow account activity as well.”
Even though accounts are accessible, many become delinquent and require action. “We don’t like to do it, but we go through small claims court when necessary,” she indicated. “We do not believe in deficit lunch and will work with parents to clear up the situation.”
Rigby feels that the current school lunch process allows the district to track balances prior to students being served. “The first thing students do when they get to the lunch room is check in with the clerk,” she indicated. “Here the child will be told if their balance is low. This prevents a student from gathering their food then being told they can’t eat. That’s humiliating to the child and we don’t want that to ever happen, but I think this is the case in the other (Uintah) school incident.”
Just like any other food service, schools require payment for meals. Currently, Carbon School District lunch prices are $1.80 elementary, $1.90 junior high and $2.20 high school. For families who cannot afford these prices, the free/reduced lunch program may be available if certain guidelines are met.