A lunch policy that ought to be dumped

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It’s not unusual for parents to embarrass their teenage daughters. It is unusual to get a big assist from their local school district.

On Monday, our freshman at Linn-Mar went to lunch. She arrived at the cashier with a tray of food, but when her card was swiped, the balance was negative.

My wife had received an email on Friday informing her of the problem. She had budgeted out how much our two kids would need for the month, but the month ended. Apparently, the middle schooler had been hungrier than expected. So the family account went red.

My wife was training an intern at work. Homecoming dance preparations loomed. She was nice enough to edit some windy hack’s column. The day slipped away. The lunch account slid to the back burner. No excuses, it’s just what happened. Some working moms may relate.

What happened to our daughter on Monday was she was told to leave her tray of food, which would be dumped. In the confusion, she left her student ID on the tray. Luckily, it wasn’t dumped and was later returned.

She returned to her table, embarrassed, with no lunch. Her friends shared their food.

At Linn-Mar, elementary kids are fed regardless of their account balance. Middle school students get lunch until their account hits a negative $15, then they receive an alternative meal. Lower-income families at all grade levels are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

Good policies. But high school kids get no leeway. No balance, no lunch.

I have problems with lunch-dumping. For starters, it was her parents’ dumb mistake, but she took the punishment. Perfectly good food was dumped, with a value likely exceeding the $1.90 deficit in our account. And was our public school district really deploying public humiliation as a fee collection tool?

To be fair, Linn-Mar is only one of many Iowa school districts where tray-dumping is the rule for high school kids with empty meal accounts.

My colleague, Lynda Waddington, first wrote about it back in February, pointing out problems with this policy in Iowa and nationally. Linn-Mar adopted its rule in April, tucked among 20 policy changes adopted all at once. If you looked at a school board agenda, or checked out meeting minutes, (because Linn-Mar doesn’t post its agenda packets), you’d never know it was being considered. According to minutes, it received no discussion. A rule change addressing whether board members can work as substitutes was discussed, but not meal charges.

Linn-Mar spokesman Matthew May said the policy change came because an Iowa Department of Education audit revealed overdue lunch account balances “in excess of $8,000.” The district was instructed to create a board policy on meal charges and officials looked at policies in other metro areas.

May said cashiers tell students when their balance is low. “The cashier tries to do this discreetly as it can be an uncomfortable conversation for both the student and cashier,” May said in an email.

An email notification is sent to parents, as I mentioned. But we blew it, so …

“At this time, the lunch tray would be left on the counter until the cashier is able to remove the tray. (The cashier is unable to leave their register until the line is clear). At this point, the cashier would take the tray to the back of the kitchen and dispose of the perishable items. Our goal is to do this discreetly — in no way would our cashiers have any intention of shaming our students,” May wrote.

I appreciate the intent, but the notion this can be done discreetly seems unrealistic. May said the policy has been used “infrequently.”

I don’t know if “in excess of $8,000” is some threshold for adopting a policy or the actual level of overdue accounts. But I do know Linn-Mar’s nutrition department does more than $2 million in sales annually, so if $8,000 is the problem, it’s a sliver of a fraction.

The district keeps saying, no matter, it’s a state mandate. But the state mandates no specific policy. Local control, for once.

And yet, after reviewing other districts, Linn-Mar chose the most stringent policy for high school kids. It matched Cedar Rapids and College Community, instead of Marion Independent, where high schoolers are allowed to charge. They could have copied Dubuque, where students get $6 worth of leeway before being given an “alternate sandwich.” Fort Dodge, Waterloo and Sioux City have similar policies.

Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps it’s great policy. So I tossed the issue out to my Facebook, friends, including many parents.

It generated 40 comments, with a clear majority reacting negatively to the policy. A lot of the folks who panned it are working moms who could imagine missing an email. Some questioned the educational benefit of denying kids lunch. One wondered about kids in extracurricular activities before and after school who could face a very long, hungry day.

Among the comments:

“It’s public shaming of children, and they’re not the ones responsible.”

“These people are educators and the policies they enact should at least pretend to forward that goal.”

“There is no upside. A hungry student, no matter the family’s economic status, is publicly shamed. That’s just wrong.”

“Priorities. $10 million for a football stadium with turf. $5 million for a pool. -$20 bucks in the lunch account ... No Soup For You!”

Some people had less of a problem with the policy, pointing to multiple student and email notifications. The district, they contend, gave us fair warning.

“I think it is absolutely ridiculous to throw away food, but I don’t have a solution to parents not paying for their kids’ food.”

I agree it’s a clear case of parental responsibility. That’s why I’m still uneasy with punishing kids. There’s a meanness to it. It’s uncharacteristic of our Linn-Mar experience.

Maybe they can figure out some way to shame parents instead of their kids. Perhaps read off the overdue list at halftime of a football game. “Todd and Katherine Dorman, negative $1.90” Booooo! Deadbeats!

Otherwise, instead of dumping trays, Linn-Mar and other districts should dump the policy and go back to the drawing board. Maybe hash it out over lunch.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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