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A Nine-Year-Old Had His School Lunch Taken Away On His Birthday Because Of Debt

Three children enjoy lunch freshly prepared and served on-site by a food service management company at the Inter Metro Summer Recreation Program in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Three children enjoy lunch freshly prepared and served on-site by a food service management company at the Inter Metro Summer Recreation Program in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Should the U.S., the richest country in the world, provide free school lunches?

A nine-year-old boy had his hot lunch taken away from him in front of other students on his birthday because of an unpaid school lunch debt balance, according to Ohio NBC affiliate WKYC 3.

The boy, named Jefferson, had his hot lunch replaced with a cold cheese sandwich, the back up for students with debt balances.

“In my mind, he didn’t owe anything. I owed the money, the parents, the school district,” the boy’s grandmother, Diane Bailey, told the Washington Post. Bailey told CNN that Jefferson and his siblings had just moved in with her, making him a new kid at the school. She said her paperwork was processing to apply for the free lunch program.

“My other question is, if they take the food off of your tray, they have to throw it away,” said Bailey. “You’re going to throw it away and not feed the child? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

Critics argue that the United States, the richest country in history, should be able to provide healthy school lunches to children. Others point to the fact that taking public action against low-income students for unpaid debt humiliates them in front of their classmates.

Administrators argue their budgets are already strained and they have no other options to counter growing debt.

On Monday, however, the district’s superintendent, Jeffrey L. Miller II, announced a new policy: “All students enrolled in PreK through twelfth grades will receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of their account balance.”

Miller responded on Facebook after taking heavy criticism, according to the Hill, saying the district would make sure students are provided hot lunches regardless of their families’ financial situations.

“We are sensitive to the financial hardship families incur and challenges presented due to the cost of school breakfast and lunches. Our staff, in coordination with Family Support Specialists, will continue to work with families to ensure they have access to all available resources to assist with purchasing school meals.”

According to the School Nutrition Association, three-fourths of school districts had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year. The New York Times reported in July that a school district in Pennsylvania sent letters to parents warning them that if their childrens’ debt balances were not paid, their child could be put in foster care by authorities.

The United States Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program, has said it cannot wipe out student lunch debt. The Trump administration has moved to slash health standards for school lunches and cut food stamps.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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