'Cheese sandwich' policies don't satisfy hungry kids

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Given the economic pressures on working families, good school nutrition is more important than ever. Serving healthier meals is vital for our kids.

Many school meal programs, however, struggle to pay for healthier food and more wholesome preparation, as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. In a recent survey of AFT members, 42.9 percent of food service workers said they expected school meal costs to exceed revenues. With low federal reimbursement rates for school meals (42 cents for paid meals, $2.81 for reduced-price meals and $3.21 for free meals), the added cost of healthy food gets passed on to families that can least afford it.

This predicament has led to "cheese sandwich," "alternate meal" and "unpaid balance" policies in school districts nationwide. These policies apply when a student has surpassed some threshold—five unpaid meals or a negative balance of $12, for example—or when a child lacks documentation to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

When that happens, children must forgo the school's hot, nutritious lunch and instead receive an alternate meal, one that is often less substantive, less nutritious and cold, such as a cheese sandwich and milk. They even may be asked to return a hot meal that has already been set on their tray, ready to be eaten. They may be given a sticker to wear or a letter to take home as a reminder for adults to pay up. Parents or guardians may be called, texted or emailed.

Meanwhile, kids miss out on the most nutritious—and sometimes the only—food they would have received that day.

Cheese sandwich policies pit children's health against schools' bottom lines. And who loses that contest? Our kids.

In the AFT survey, 1 in 3 members reported seeing a student go hungry. In the United States, at least 1 in 5 children suffers from hunger, even when it is well known that hunger and food insecurity can lead to impaired brain functioning and poor academic achievement.

Alternate meals and "no feed" policies also can lead to students feeling singled out and embarrassed. One in 4 surveyed members reported seeing a child stigmatized for parents' lack of payment or documentation. Cheese sandwich policies can mean students go hungry, skipping the cafeteria entirely to avoid embarrassment.

Seeing this conflict between nutritional and financial priorities, many AFT members go so far as to pay off a student's balance or break rules to slip him or her a regular meal. Many others keep a desk drawer or cabinet filled with food for students they know come to school hungry.

"Truth be told, there are a few of us who make sure the students don't go without lunch," says a former chef and cafeteria manager from West Virginia. "We pay their bill."

While generous and well-intentioned, these actions are inconsistent, may violate district or school rules, and don't solve the underlying problem.

Another AFT member explained how some "solutions" can backfire, eroding relationships between schools and families. At one school, for example, it falls to homeroom teachers to collect money from parents, which has led to family members not answering the phone when the school calls—often for outstanding balances of less than $5.

"I will never support a system that singles out a child to an alternate meal because parents didn't pay," says another member. "No matter how discreet you are in your collection effort, as soon as that child is handed the cheese sandwich, you have stripped him of privacy and dignity."

To begin addressing this nationwide issue, the AFT sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sharing AFT members' thoughts and recommendations, and proposing ways to eliminate ad hoc solutions.

The letter, sent in January by AFT President Randi Weingarten to the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, maps out in detail what the federal government could do to improve school meal programs. Broadly, these include restructuring programs so that all children have regular, nutritious meals; providing models for schools and districts that continue to use alternate meal policies; and avoiding punitive scenarios when families can't pay.

The AFT health, safety and well-being department has posted on AFT.org some options schools and districts may use to promote children's nutrition.

"At the end of the day, the health and well-being of our children comes before the bottom line," Weingarten wrote in her letter. "Denying a child food, excluding a child from school activities or marginalizing a child goes against the AFT's mission and the mission of FNS, which is 'to provide children and needy families better access to food and a more healthful diet.'"

[Chelsea Prax, Annette Licitra]