Printed on: March 20, 2014

D251 changes school lunch account policy


RIGBY -- Jefferson Joint School District 251 students with negative lunch account balances will have a longer grace period to refill their accounts under a revised policy enacted by the school board.

The change came after parents questioned the treatment of a Rigby Middle School student, whose lunch was taken away and thrown out last month in front of other students in the cafeteria.

Under the new procedure, elementary and middle school students with negative lunch account balances will be allowed to charge up to five additional lunches. After the fifth lunch charge, students will be served a grain item and fruit and/or a vegetable until their accounts are caught up, the policy states. The previous limit was two lunch charges for elementary students and one charge for middle school students. After the final charge, students in arrears were served a roll until the accounts were paid.

The change doesn't apply to Rigby High School students, who are not allowed to charge a meal when money is owed on their lunch accounts. They will, however, be offered a grain item and fruit and/or a vegetable if they're unable to contact their parents for lunch money.

The new rules, approved March 12 by school board members, seem to be going well, Superintendent Ron Tolman said.

"We had an isolated incident, and when something happened that should not have happened, we just used it as a chance to say, 'We would like to modify policy,' and we did," he said. "I think it's just made an improvement for everyone."

The incident that prompted the changes occurred Feb. 12 when a food service worker took the lunch of a student whose lunch account balance was negative. The food was thrown away by the worker. The incident embarrassed the student, parent Janet Stephenson said.

Stephenson's daughter was among those who saw what happened and shared her lunch with the humiliated student. When Stephenson later heard what happened, she turned to social media to inform others about the incident. She gathered a following of district parents who thought the incident was poorly handled and should be used as an opportunity to make changes.

"What I wanted to do was bring it to (the district's) attention," Stephenson said. "At first I thought, what if it's just an ornery lunch lady? (Then) I understood that it was a districtwide policy. So from there, I wanted to make sure no more children are embarrassed or denied lunch."

Although no policy was violated, Rigby Middle School Vice Principal Dave Meyer said officials talked to the food service worker who confiscated the lunch.

"They were operating within existing policy but educated about maybe there were other options available -- ways to help that student out so we don't have to pull that tray," Meyer said.

The incident isn't unique to Idaho.

In Utah's Salt Lake City School District, a cafeteria manager and her supervisor were placed on paid leave following the January seizure of school lunches from as many as 40 elementary students with unpaid balances. The district later enacted new measures so parents would be better informed about their children's lunch account balances.

After the Feb. 12 incident, District 251 also has tried to encourage parents to manage student lunch funds online, which includes setting up a low-balance notification. The district also has an emergency lunch fund that consists of donations for use by students when in need.

"It's a difficult situation, and unfortunately a student was caught in the middle of it by having their lunch taken away," Meyer said. "We want children to be able to eat and have a nutritious meal, but the obligation to help kids with that is one that's shared by the school and the parents."

Reporter Kirsten Johnson can be reached at 542-6757.

Compare and contrast

Here's a sampling of lunch account policies in other eastern Idaho school districts.

Bonneville Joint School District 93 allows students with accounts in arrears to charge two more lunches, which is followed by a weekly letter to parents. Students never are denied lunch, however.

In Idaho Falls School District 91, no official policy is in place, but elementary school students behind on their lunch accounts are generally allowed five charges. After that, they receive a cheese sandwich until the account is paid. Secondary students receive two additional charges.

Blackfoot School District 55 allows elementary students five charges before the students are served only sandwiches. Middle school students can make three additional charges before receiving a sandwich. High school students receive no additional charging privileges when their accounts are past due.