OLD TOWN, Maine — Elizabeth Ireland was angry after she learned that her 11-year-old son went hungry during lunch at J.A. Leonard Middle School on Monday because he was denied his hot lunch in the cafeteria.
“He sat at a table and watched his friends eat lunch,” said Ireland of Old Town. “He was embarrassed and he was hungry. He came home starving.”
Ireland owed $53 on her son’s school lunches, and starting on Monday and continuing through the last day of school on June 11, students who owe money on their school lunch accounts won’t be fed, according to RSU 34 Superintendent David Walker.
The policy isn’t new, said Walker, adding that before Monday, he hadn’t received a complaint in the eight years he has enforced it as superintendent.
“We don’t want a child to go without lunch, but at the same token, the taxpayers expect us to collect what’s due to us,” said Walker.
Parents are mailed notices periodically of how much is owed for their child’s school lunch, said Walker. The money, either cash or a check, is typically sent with the student to school to pay off the bill, according to Ireland.
The no-pay, no-food policy is only implemented at the middle school and high school levels, not at the elementary school level, Walker said.
“Students are old enough to take responsibility for their lunches” by the middle school age, said Walker.
Ireland said the policy punishes the child for the mistakes of the parent.
“I don’t think ‘a child shouldn’t eat’ is ever the answer,” she said, adding that she was never informed of the policy.
“Take financial issues up with me, not my child,” said Kyla Harrison, who has two children in the middle school.
Ireland admitted that she gets forgetful about paying the bill.
“It sometimes gets away from me,” she said. “But I always catch up. This time last year, I had over $100 owed, but I paid before school was over.”
After Ireland’s son didn’t receive a lunch on Monday, parents who owed money on their child’s lunch account were called by the school to prevent more complaints.
“I was notified at 9:30 a.m.” Tuesday that I owed money, said Harrison, adding that she owed $12.
A lunch in middle school costs $2.50, while a lunch in high school costs $2.75, said Walker.
Walker said he owes it to taxpayers to try to collect that money. He said there are about 1,500 students in the school system.
“You could have 50-75 accounts that are delinquent that are anywhere between $5 and $250,” said Walker. “If I have $2,500 worth of unpaid lunches, then I take $2,500 from [the] general fund to pay for it. That’s $2,500 that is not used for textbooks or other things. Resources are fairly scarce.”
It’s a Catch-22, he said. If he doesn’t collect the lunch money, then taxpayers will be upset. If he does, then he’s accused of being callous toward children.
It’s also a hassle to send out notices to parents who haven’t paid off their lunch bills, he said.
“We spend an inordinate amount of time chasing lunch money. It’s a lot of administration time and postage for the collections part and it becomes a task,” said Walker.
Walker said the policy is used for the last week of the year because after school is out, the school has lost the connection with students and parents.
“I have very little luck in collecting money when school is out,” he said.
The policy is also effective.
“If you didn’t make any attempt to collect, it would be bigger,” Walker said.
Ireland said she paid off her debt on Tuesday.
However, she was still upset that no one told her son that he could contact someone to bring him a lunch or money to buy lunch that day.
Walker said students who don’t get a lunch can still get snacks from the guidance office.
There is a process for free or reduced lunch, said Walker.
“It’s much easier to work ahead of time than to get to this point in the year with a week left of school,” he said.
Ireland doesn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch, she said.
Ireland said she contacted school board members about the policy. Those board members contacted the superintendent about his policy, said Walker.
“This board has not had a meal charging policy, which I’m guessing from the discussion [Tuesday] is something they’ll need to have,” said Walker. “If the board decides they don’t want to do business this way, then that’s what we’ll do.”
Walker said on Tuesday that he would talk with administrators and the food service director to “find out what happened and where was the communication missed [with Ireland].”
Walker did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on Wednesday.