Change in policy allows students to charge meals

GREENFIELD — Greenfield-Central schools are scrapping so-called alternative meals for elementary students.

Starting next school year, if a student runs out of lunch money in their account, they’ll be allowed to keep their tray and charge the cost of their lunch. Currently, after charging meals for more than three days, cafeteria workers hand them an alternative meal, like a sandwich, in place of a hot lunch — a standard that has long drawn criticism from parents and students alike.

The Greenfield-Central School Board recently approved the policy change school officials say puts the responsibility of ensuring students have lunch money on parents — not kids — and spares students the embarrassment of having their hot meal taken from them if they can’t pay.

Students at the district’s four elementary and two intermediate schools will be able to charge their meals indefinitely, as opposed to only three times under the former policy, and parents will have 20 days to pay those bills before they’re passed on to collections.

The United States Department of Agriculture oversees federal funding for school lunches and relies on school districts to set policies regarding insufficient funds in students’ lunch accounts.

Schools are required to pass policies by July 1.

Mt. Vernon already allows students to charge their meals, permitting parents to pay for lunch later, said Maria Bond, the district’s communications director.

Eastern Hancock schools allow students to purchase meals until they’re accounts go into the red $10. Then students are given a sack lunch until their accounts is paid, Superintendent Vicki McGuire wrote in an email to the Daily Reporter. Southern Hancock officials couldn’t be reached for comment about their policy.

While Greenfield-Central already had a policy in place, schools officials think now is a good time to update their rules, said food services director Tony Zurwell.

Elementary students shouldn’t be punished when their lunch accounts are empty, he said.

Throughout the school year, the district sends email alerts, letting parents know when their child’s account balance is running low or has dipped into the negative, Zurwell said. Educators advertise the district’s free and reduced-price lunch program and even offer a convenient way for parents to pay for lunch online, he said.

Still, some students are short on money when it comes time to pay.

Last year, alternative meals cost the district about $9,000, Zurwell said.

Staff members do their best not to embarrass students if they have to switch out their hot meal, but sometimes, those efforts aren’t enough to keep a student from getting upset, Zurwell said.

“I’ve been in the cafeteria when it’s pizza day, and some small child isn’t allowed to have it that day,” he said. “It’s not good. … I’ve seen tears.”

At the junior high and high school, no changes will made. There, students aren’t allowed to charge their meals. Zurwell said students at the level are older, so relying on them to remind Mom and Dad they need lunch money makes sense.

School board member Steve Menser applauded the policy change.

“This is definitely a move in the right direction,” he said. “The kids can get a regular meal and charge it. … I’m happy.”

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.