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No money for lunch?
Trying to strike a balance between brain fuel and finances
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Frustration about how public schools deal with the problem of unpaid lunches has been simmering under the surface of public scrutiny for weeks now.  It began to boil locally last week when several parents began commenting on a social media site about their outrage at the local school district for refusing a school lunch to a child whose account was apparently overdrawn, and the parent claimed no knowledge of the arrears.  
And Great Bend isn’t the only district where parents have been speaking out about the humiliation their children have endured by these occurrences.  The controversy boiled over this week when the Huffington Post and a CBS news affiliated reported on school officials throwing out the lunches of up to 40 students at Uintah Elementary School in Salt Lake City, Utah, because of unpaid balances on students’ meal accounts.
If this seems counterproductive to providing an environment conducive to learning, The authors of the National School Lunch Act of 1946 would likely agree. They recognized that good nutrition was vital in determining a student’s ability to learn in class.  But not all families qualify for free or reduced lunches, and with schools struggling to make ends meet, the buck has to stop somewhere.
Back in Great Bend USD 428, at elementary schools and the middle school, students are informed when they have three meals left on their lunch accounts, and are allowed to charge two meals.
“This gives them five days to remember to bring money,” said Karl Sprague, USD 428 Food Service Director, in an email interview with the Tribune on Thursday, Jan. 24.  “Since reduced price kids do pay something for their meals, they also receive reminders when their accounts are low.”  Paper reminders are sent home.
For students at the high school, verbal reminders are given when they have a low balance, and the are allowed to charge two meals.  No paper reminders are given.  
But even if a student doesn’t have enough money to pay for lunch, and have already charged up to two lunches, they aren’t expected to go without food.  Milk, crackers and peanut butter are available.  Some students want it, and some don’t, Sprague said.  
At the middle school and high school, where a la carte items are available, it’s not as easy a call as at the elementary school.
“We don’t know till they hit the registers at the end of the line, if they are too far in the red, so yes they do put their tray back if nobody will loan them some money,”  he said.  The district policy is not to allow students to charge non-meal items.  
According to the Huffington Post story, “Erica Lukes, Sophia’s mother, says she is outraged over the incident, and that she was previously under the impression that Sophia’s lunch balance had been paid.”
And at Great Bend, parents taking part in the social media thread echoed this and other frustrations with notification and discrepancies in what they thought were and what the district said their children’s balances were.  
Sprague said parents are welcome to contact his office if they feel money is disappearing from their kids account, and they can print an account history and investigate.
“We have found kids have learned or been given account numbers from friends and when we catch them they are turned over to the office for discipline,” he said.
Parents should also be aware that applying for and being approved for free or reduced lunches can be done throughout the school year if family circumstances have changed since August.  An application can be picked up at either the office of the school their student attends or at the food services office located at Broadway and Stone Street in Great Bend, and an answer of eligibility can be processed within a day or two.  
“Given that some districts, even in Kansas, have hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid meal charges, we are trying to reach a happy balance,”  Sprague said.