The entertainment industry often depicts cafeteria staff to be grouchy and gruff. Think about your favorite cartoon, where the lunch lady, her curly grey hair contained by a hairnet, carelessly slaps a ladle full of mush onto the plate of each student passing by.
Maybe in your own school days you knew your fair share of unhappy cafeteria workers! Stacy Koltiska — an elementary school cafeteria cashier in Canon-McMillan, Pennsylvania — might be unhappy, but it’s for a good reason. She ended up resigning from her job after being forced to take away a hot lunch from a young boy who had a negative lunch balance.
Koltiska felt ashamed as she saw the sad look in the boy’s eyes.
The school’s lunch policy states that students with a negative balance of $25 or more cannot have a hot lunch, but are instead to be given a slice of cheese between two white pieces of bread. The hot lunch taken away from the children with the negative balance is thrown out, and the parents are still charged $2.05 for the lunch their child couldn’t enjoy.
While some may think this is a perfectly acceptable policy, there are a lot of things wrong with this picture.
Some believe that by taking a lunch away from a child due to the fact that their parents had not yet paid brings an unnecessary, adult problem onto the child. It’s punishing them for something they have no control over.
It’s also humiliating for the students to be seen with a lousy cheese sandwich while other kids have delicious hot lunch meal. It tells other students, “I couldn’t afford a hot lunch.”
With strict policies in schools not allowing students to share their hot lunch meals or even the contents of their brought-from-home lunchbox meals, the students who receive the cheese sandwich literally have nothing but the sandwich to eat for lunch, unless they happened to have brought an additional snack from home.
The worst part is, cheese sandwiches are only about 280 calories each. Somewhat active girls ages nine to 13 need 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day, whereas boys need approximately 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day. To make matters worse, 23% of young students skip out on breakfast, which means if all they get for lunch is a cheese sandwich, they’ll still need to eat 1,320 to 1,920 calories after school if they want to promote a healthy brain and lifestyle.
Many also disagree with the hot lunch policy because the parents do eventually pay for the children’s lunches before the end of the school year. Why force parents to pay now? As well as this, students often forget to tell their parents their lunch balance is negative or parents misinterpret that the hot lunches are free. A problem like this can easily be resolved by calling up the parents or sending a bill to the home rather than punishing the students.
The school’s district superintendent, Matthew Daniels, disagrees.
“There has never been the intent with the adoption of this policy to shame or embarrass a child,” he told Action 4 News. He claimed that with the stricter policy, school lunch debts for the district went from $60,000 to $100,000 annually to just $20,000 annually.
However, Koltiska has a completely different view.
“There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school. To me this is just wrong,” says Koltiska, “They are suits at a board meeting. They are not the ones facing a child and looking them in the eye and taking their food away.”
Surely the school board, parents and cafeteria workers can reach a compromise on a more effective system that doesn’t leave students in the lurch. Establishing payment plans with parents, using automatic withdrawal, or having other parents contribute to a fund that would support students with a negative balance are all viable options.
Whatever the solution may be, Koltiska has received an immense amount of support, as her story is quickly making its way across the web. Inmates at a local prison have even offered to donate their food to students who are rejected a hot lunch meal to ensure these children will be well-fed and have their brains powered for a long day of learning.
In time, hopefully the school lunch policy, not just for this specific district but for districts everywhere, will change in a way that is beneficial for everyone.