Last Tuesday, as many 25 students at Coelho Middle School in Attleboro, Massachusetts, went hungry. Cafeteria staff with Whitson’s, the school system’s school lunch vendor, told students to throw away their lunch because the balance in their pre-paid credit accounts was too low, in violation of a school policy that the cafeteria provides a sandwich and milk for kids who can’t pay.
11-year-old Victoria Greaves, a fifth grader at Coelho, had gotten her lunch but was told by a cashier to throw it away. Victoria’s father John expressed angered at the incident and also said that the school failed to contact him about what had happened. Jen Ingemi, the mother of a boy in the fifth grade told The Sun Chronicle that the girl behind her son in line burst into tears when she was told to throw her lunch away; her son offered to share his lunch.
As Superintendent Pia Durkin says to The Sun Chronicle, “There is no way any child in my school district will ever go hungry. Children need to eat.” School officials say they had not been informed of the policy about withholding meals from students with insufficient credit.
The middle school’s principal, Andrew Boles, did not learn about the incident until late Tuesday afternoon, after some parents called him. Boles said that Whitson’s had informed him at the beginning of the year about students having “deficient accounts” and that it would pass along a statement to parents. But, as Boles told FOX 25, the company never actually gave him such a statement. He noted that, while he was aware that the cafeteria workers’ “intent was not to humiliate or upset the students,” this had indeed happened.
The workers and a spokesperson for Whitson’s have since apologized, with the latter saying that “this situation should have been handled differently.” School administrators say that they have “ordered” Whitson’s workers not to refuse meals to any students. The on-site cafeteria director has been placed on leave and the school district is also planning to meet with Whitson officials.
Of course, parents need to make sure their children’s accounts have sufficient credit. Holly Von Seggern, vice president for marketing and community relations for Whitson’s, said to FOX 25 that unpaid balances on students’ lunch accounts have become an issue but that those for Attleboro students are “not out of control.” Superintendent Durkin says that Whitson’s had informed her that total of outstanding credit balances on all students’ accounts in the district add up to about $1,800.
The incident illustrates the issues that can arise when school districts (and other organizations) use outside contractors for essential services. On-site employees like those in the cafeteria answer not to school officials but to the company the school district has a contract with. School officials and Whitson’s needed to draw up clear guidelines about school lunches for students and the issue of payment in advance. When policies are unclear, students get caught in the middle and go hungry.
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