D. Charles is the mother of a six-year old who attends school in East Orange, New Jersey. Her daughter was sent away from the lunch line without a meal when her account appeared to be empty.
"At first I was upset that she was denied food, period, because even if her account wasn't up to date I felt like as a human being it's hard to sit and watch a child who is hungry, be hungry," she says.
The first grader went to another room to call her parents and wait for the other kids to be finished eating.
A little while later the lunch room monitor realized this child did have money in her account and so she was fed. Her parents left work and went to the school anyway.
"When her father and I got to the school we reliazed that it wasn't just her," says Charles. "There was a room full of kids who were not fed. Some of them did qualify for reduced lunch, which amounted to 40-cents per meal. The principle then informed us that she spoke to parents on the first day of school and that it was their responsibility to make sure their kids are fed."
East Orange school officials sent a note home to parents stating that their district could no longer afford to offer food to children who forget their lunch money. Prior to that letter, kids were offered a sandwich and milk. This is increasingly common in New Jersey and elsewhere around the country.
There's no federal guideline for what a public school should do when a child doesn’t have money to pay for lunch. That means the experience for a young child can be completely different, even at schools just miles apart. So even in kindergarten -- no money can equal no food.
Victor Demming is East Orange's school business administrator. He says the state does not allow school lunch programs to run a deficit, and theirs had topped $200,000.
"The deficit actually comes as a result of students not paying for meals," he says.
Demming implemented a variety of methods for getting children in need of free meals enrolled in the federal program, including using state records to auto-enroll the poorest families.
Still, there are lots of reasons a child’s lunch account may be in the red. Parents are busy people and may simply forget to check the balance. Financial situations change.
But a tough economy also impacts schools, and more of them are refusing to feed the kids who don’t pay.
"The USDA advises schools that they are not obligated to provide meals to children who forget their lunch money," says Diane Pratt Heavener, spokesperson at the School Nutrition Association. "There's very little guidance on the books about how schools should respond, and in the absence of any guidance, many schools struggle to come to a concensus on how to respond when unpaid meal charges balloon out of control."
Pratt Heavener says developing a policy can be an emotional and difficult task. However, without a budget to cover the cost of unpaid meals the debt can quickly pile up.
"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," she says.
New York City is the most extreme example, in part because it serves more than 600,000 lunches a day. Children there without lunch money do not go hungry, but that comes at a huge expense. Over the course of 8 years, the price tag for unpaid meals famously topped $42,000,000, according to the city’s education department.
In many other states, debt collectors are hired to go after parents with unpaid bills. There is even a debt collection agency that specializes in collecting lunch debt from parents. Many districts use robo-calls. Some withhold report cards or deny access to school activities. Lawmakers in Louisiana tried another approach. Parents there who send a child to school three times without lunch, or the money to buy it, may get a visit from child protective services to look for signs of neglect.
Still, if there’s anything everyone agreed on, there’s also a cost to hungry kids.
"Children who are hungry do not do well in school," says Victor Demming, "and quite frankly, our energy here is to provide instruction to all of our young people."
For now, it appears schools all over the country are choosing between two bad options -- piles of debt or hungry kids.
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