Students with a negative balance in their lunch accounts are turned away
By Kara Conley, Current Staff
Rules are rules, even when it comes to lunch.
Lunch provides a small amount of time for students to enjoy food and conversation in the middle of the day. However, some students are unable to share in the food part due to the hot lunch policy regarding account balances.
This year some students have had their trays taken away from them or have been chased after in the lunchroom once it was discovered they had a negative account balance.
“We have a policy that if you have no money in the account then you are obviously not able to buy extras or things like that, unless you have money in hand,” said Abby Padilla, director of nutrition for the West Bend School District.
“If you are a regular paying student, and you are in the negative six dollars or more, you are not allowed to eat. And the reason being is that we have a policy in place and a system that’s in place,” Padilla said.
When students have extended their negative balance, their food must be taken away and discarded. A code of health must also be followed, according to Padilla.
“From a food safety standpoint, you’ve already come into contact with the food so we can’t safely say that it can be reused. We do have a policy in place where it should be done discreetly and we want to keep everyone’s dignity, but again, we have to have a policy in place,” Padilla said.
Unfortunately, from a Health Department point of view, there is no way in which the food can be saved or reused.
“At the end of the day, all of the leftovers are thrown out. We try, we have lots of things in place to plan and know numbers so we don’t have a ton of leftovers, but we want to provide kids with options,” Padilla said. “Our number one concern is that we want to keep students safe.”
Students begin to receive phone calls from the district’s lunch program once they are at a balance of nine dollars, and continuously receive them each day until the balance is brought back up to a sufficient amount.
“That is a significant amount of time, and we have to have some point where the negative comes in. If there is something that we can do, we definitely try to work with the students, but we do have a cut-off point of that negative six dollars,” Padilla said.
Padilla also makes sure that when students reach a low balance, the lunchroom staff notifies the student as they go through the line. But some students say that hasn’t always been the case.
“I don’t even realize my balance is that low until I’m at the point where I can’t get lunch. My parents receive the phone calls and my family is so busy that we sometimes forget about adding money to the account when needed,” West junior Michael Gugg said.
Padilla says that a policy for lunch accounts is a necessity, though, due to the large amount of money the district may lose if students are constantly at a negative balance.
“If we did allow for them to keep the food, then we would have to charge them. Then the question becomes, How are we reimbursed for that? We have 7,000 students in the district and if we allow every student to go negative six dollars, when we do that math, that would be a significant amount lost,” Padilla said.
The lunch program isn’t focused on making a profit, but it does need funds to provide students with beneficial lunches.
“Without that money we can’t do new things on the menu, we can’t keep up the fresh fruit and vegetables that may cost a little bit more, especially in the winter time,” Padilla said.
Padilla and the rest of the lunch employees want to be able to give each student a lunch they can enjoy, and they are happy to assist in any way possible.
“If there is some situation going on, or something going on in the family where money might be a concern, we are a part of the national school lunch program where we offer free and reduced meals. We have applications that can be filled out by the family and then based on qualifying factors, there is a good chance they will be able to receive free or reduced lunch. The program is also confidential,” Padilla said.
Students who may be in need of financial aid for school lunch are welcome to talk with a lunchroom manager to find out more information. Padilla and her staff also look to the students for new ideas to add to the lunch menu.
“We’re trying really hard to bring in more food that students would like and we are always open to suggestions. Students can talk to any of the food staff to give input for meals,” Padilla said.
(Top image: Cafeteria server Becky Krutina receives the student line during lunch on Wednesday. Photograph by Hannah Bensen, Current Staff.)