When we are young, most of us are unaware of how our parents’ actions, or lack thereof, can affect us. Unfortunately, that lack of action can result in a number of social and emotional difficulties for a child. Two weeks ago, a school lunch worker, Stacy Koltiska quit her job at Wylandville Elementary School in Eighty Four, Pa. because she was directed to refuse students a hot meal if they had a negative balance on their accounts. According to The Washington Post, Koltiska said that the look in one boy’s eyes was one that she would not forget. I support her decision to leave the school district and bring the matter to the attention of the public. No child should have to face the repercussions of his or her family not being up-to-date with their payment for lunch. More so, children should not have to deal with the social and emotional distress that it may cause when they are the only one unable to afford a hot meal on a particular day or for the entire year. If a student’s meal balance is not current, there should be direct contact made with the family and if they are struggling to provide for their child, the school district should already have that child on a free or reduced lunch plan.
The main issue is that not all school districts are consistent when it comes to reminding parents that they must pay for lunch. Although there are plenty of things that go into running a school and the people responsible for informing parents likely have a long list of things to do, contacting parents under these circumstances should be a priority. I am the child of two educators, so I have heard my parents discuss, especially over the last few years, how the school dynamic has changed. My father especially, who is an elementary school principal, has experienced the mounting paperwork that leaves educators doubting if what they do during the day is really about the students anymore. For that reason, school lunches must not be lost in the shuffle because, like the education of students, it affects students directly and may create larger problems throughout the day if left unmonitored.
The Washington Post reported that “more than 300 families owed the [Eighty Four, Pa.] district between $60,000 and $100,000 annually before the policy was put in place; now there are 70 families who owe the district a total of $20,000.” There is no arguing that the method has produced results in that particular district, but it is at a great cost, despite their assertion to Action News 4 that their intention is not to humiliate children. Whether or not they intended for that particular reaction is irrelevant because at the end of the day, there are more effective methods of ensuring that payment is given and received.
For instance, the New Jersey school district that my parents work for contracts a food service company that has a similar policy; if a child does not pay for his or her lunch, they are given a cheese sandwich. No child is ever denied a meal. My mother had a student whose parents had not paid all year. The only effort to collect was a letter sent home with the child by the food service company after quite some time; apparently not enough to compel the parents to follow-up. Perhaps verbal communication between the parents and those in charge of handling school lunch payment would be more effective. Ultimately, the child in my mother’s class was still given his choice of lunch, but likely only because the school had a compassionate school lunch worker.
My mother said that when the regular food service worker was absent and one of the higher up food service workers filled in, the replacement was a real stickler for the rules. On one occasion, she refused to give a butter pat to an autistic student who wanted it for breadsticks because that was not something that went with that meal, also refusing to give it to the lunch aide. The child got upset and the lunch aide had to get my mother to calm him down. The aforementioned experience speaks to the fact that many food service workers, like Koltiska, know their students and are an important component in ensuring that all of the needs of a student are met. Moreover, it indicates that these workers should not be forced to participate in an action that they know will be detrimental to a child’s well being, no matter how insignificant it may be to some.
Sometimes, a hot meal at lunch is the only hot meal a child may get. As unappetizing as the meals can be, it may be the best meal of the day. Chances are, if a parent neglects to pay for the child’s lunch, they may have circumstances that prevent them from providing for the child, or worse yet, may just not care, which is sometimes the sad reality. Moreover, the restrictions that are in place need to be re-evaluated because at the end of the day, in many cases due to government regulations, the uneaten food gets disposed of, which is a tremendous waste.
School districts, such as the one that Koltiska works for, often look for ways to save money where they can, but by using punitive measures toward children, such as withholding a warm lunch, they are hurting children who have no power over poor parenting or their socioeconomic standing.