‘The first-graders will cry.’ Schools rethink policies that shame kids at lunch.

Students get their lunch from food service worker Karen Ynigues at Natoma Station Elementary School on Tuesday, August 15, 2017 in Folsom, Calif.
Students get their lunch from food service worker Karen Ynigues at Natoma Station Elementary School on Tuesday, August 15, 2017 in Folsom, Calif.

There won’t be any more cheese sandwiches served at Elk Grove Unified schools.

The region’s largest school district will no longer give students a bland, alternative lunch when they run out of meal funds or forget their lunch money.

Elk Grove Unified is joining districts across the region and nation that are changing rules so that children who come up short for lunch money aren’t embarrassed with a different meal than what their peers receive – or not fed at all, as has been the case elsewhere.

The wave of change comes after high-profile news stories about “lunch shaming,” including one about a food service worker in Pennsylvania who quit because a boy cried when she took a hot meal away from him and replaced it with a cheese sandwich and another about a child in Arizona who had “lunch money” stamped on his arm to remind his parents to pay up.

Pending California legislation banning alternate lunches also prompted Elk Grove Unified to move forward with the changes.

“We wanted to be proactive,” said Michelle Drake, director of Food and Nutrition Services for the district.

The changes at Elk Grove Unified schools also were prompted by the district’s food service workers, many who weren’t replacing the daily entree for a cheese sandwich when kids didn’t have money, Drake said. They didn’t want to single out the kids by handing them a different meal, she said.

“It’s just not good for our children and it’s difficult on the staff,” Drake said. “The last thing they want to see a third-grader and fourth-grader with that look on their face. We have changed it up for this school year.”

Also gone: verbal and written reminders delivered directly to students who owe lunch money. The district now will deal directly with parents about lunch debt, Drake said.

The problem can affect low-income students whose families haven’t filed the paperwork to receive free- or reduced-price meals they qualify for. It can also affect middle-class children required to pay full price for lunch, which is $2.75 at Elk Grove Unified elementary schools.

In previous generations, students typically had to bring cash each day to the cafeteria. But most schools now can deduct lunch costs electronically from student accounts.

Elk Grove Unified is testing its changes over the next three to six months so the district can determine the cost before making the change permanently, Drake said.

Maria Correia agrees with the new approach. The food and nutrition services worker at Irene B. West Elementary School in south Sacramento remembers the reaction of students when their meals were taken away in the past.

“It was embarrassing, especially for the big kids,” she said Wednesday. “... I have to take the pizza away and give them a cheese sandwich. The first-graders will cry.”

She didn’t always make the switch.

“Sometimes I let it go with the pizza,” she said. “I can’t see somebody cry. I have grandkids.”

Irene B. West parent Melissa Palacol was happy to hear that kids would no longer be singled out and given different lunches.

“It affects them a lot,” she said. “They want to be like everyone else.”

Palacol’s daughter, Leilani, was given a cheese sandwich once when her mother forgot to put money in her account. The second-grader said she was embarrassed.

“Sometimes we get busy,” Palacol said of parents. An email alert from the school now helps her to remember when to add money to her daughter’s account.

Parent Kevin Wong liked the policy change that keeps the issue of lunch debt between adults.

“It should be directed to parents, not kids,” he said. “They shouldn’t have the burden of coming up with money.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave districts operating national school lunch or breakfast programs until July 1 to prepare a written policy on how they charge and collect for meals.

In California, state lawmakers are considering a proposal to ban lunch shaming by preventing schools from treating students with unpaid meal bills differently. If the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approve the change, California would become the nation’s second state to outlaw lunch shaming.

Senate Bill 250 by Sen. Robert M. Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, requires that schools feed all K-12 kids even if they don’t pay. It also stops the practice of offering students alternate meals or using children as a conduit for collecting money for meals.

“I think everybody recognizes what an awful position this puts kids in with something they have no responsibility for – whether their lunches are paid or not,” said Andrew LaMar, Hertzberg’s spokesman. “They get publicly shamed and we know that kids of all ages are influenced by social pressure and their standing with peers.”

Elk Grove Unified is following in the footsteps of Natomas Unified, which eliminated alternate meals in 2012.

“(Schools) send letters and phone calls but they don’t cut off the meals,” said Jim Sanders, district spokesman.

Sacramento City Unified, San Juan Unified and Twin Rivers Unified also offer alternate or basic meals to students who can’t pay for lunch, although elementary-aged child are usually allowed credit for a few regular meals beforehand.

“We feed every kid because it’s important that they eat so they can learn,” said Jill Van Dyke, director of nutrition services at Twin Rivers Unified. “We feed them and call the parents. We try not to embarrass the child because it is not their fault.”

At Natoma Station Elementary in Folsom on Tuesday, students without lunch money could select fruit and vegetables from the salad bar and pick up a carton of milk before receiving two cheese sticks and four packs of crackers at the food service window. The other kids had a choice of chicken nuggets and a cookie or pasta with meat sauce and garlic bread.

“My understanding is we will give an alternate meal, other times we aren’t able to provide a meal to a child,” said Daniel Thigpen, district spokesman. “That happens in conversation with the child and their parent, depending what their negative balance looks like and how far their negative balance has gone.”

Folsom Cordova Unified made some changes to its food service policy on Aug. 3, but stopped short of ending the practice of replacing regular meals with basic or alternate meals when kids can’t pay.

The new policy adds strategies and procedures for collection of meal payments. It says school employees will not overtly identify students with overdrawn accounts or students who receive free meals.

A policy change that would move away from the alternate lunch is being discussed.

“It’s a work in progress,” Thigpen said.

Davis Senior High offers school lunches kicked up a notch from a food truck.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

Related stories from Sacramento Bee