WESTFIELD, NJ—A recent story on NJ.com reported that one New Jersey school district will cease offering free meals to students who can’t pay for them. Read it here. According to that story, the school superintendent there said the district spent $50,000 last year to feed children who could not pay for their lunch, and he encouraged parents in need to apply for free or reduced price meals.
What happens, then, when a Westfield student arrives at school without a lunch or lunch money? And what if a family can’t afford to supply lunch or a parent can’t be reached to fix the problem?
Several Westfield parents told The Alternative Press that staff members go out of their way to help students who arrive at school without a lunch.
“I think they truly appreciate that children need to be well-nourished to think and function at their best,” said Greer Gurland, a mother of five. “I’ve been very impressed with how they’ve handled my lunch debacles.”
In her seven years as director of food services for the Westfield school district, Kathy Tropeano said she has never seen a child consistently come to school without a homemade lunch or money to buy a meal.
“It’s just not going to happen that a student would repeatedly show up without food or money for an extended period because I contact the guardian after two charges,” Tropeano said in an email.
If a child did show up repeatedly without lunch, Tropeano would confidentially inform the student’s guidance counselor.
“I’d continue to provide a lunch to this child free of charge until otherwise advised by the staff of the school,” she added.
Several measures are in place to make sure students at all grade levels who arrive without lunch money do not miss a meal.
For elementary schoolers, parents can buy a bagged lunch a month in advance so there is no worry about forgetting to bring in money the day a child plans to buy lunch.
Westfield’s two intermediate schools use a point-of-sale system in their cafeterias. Students buying lunch are assigned a pin number to use for every purchase. Middle school students can charge up to three meals if their account runs dry.
If the account is still not replenished after three charges and a phone call to the parent, however, the middle school student who does not have lunch can receive a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk.
High school students can also set up an account and use a pin number to buy their lunch.
“Most students get in touch with their parents when they’re running low and the parent deposits money online immediately,” Tropeano said.
Parents who can’t afford to buy lunch for their children can apply for free or reduced-price meals. These applications are processed through the Westfield Board of Education. During the 2012-13 school year about 150 pupils out of 6,310 in the district were enrolled in these programs, according to Tropeano.
Gurland recalled an instance during the last school year when her oldest child, then a fifth grader at Washington Elementary School, was short of funds when he went to purchase lunch at Edison Intermediate School, where he attended a specialized class once a week.
“They gave him lunch and said he could pay them back,” Gurland said, noting that her son did repay the cafeteria worker the following week.
Mary Reilly, an occupational therapist and also a mother of five, noted that her high schoolers have occasionally sent her a text message alerting her to a forgotten lunch.
“My kids are packers, not buyers,” she said. “If I could, I would bring in their lunch.”
High school upperclassmen also have the option of eating off campus with their parents’ permission when the weather is good.
Reilly has volunteered to help serve lunch on pizza day at McKinley Elementary School, where her two youngest children are students, and noted that “teachers are amazingly innovative at coming up with an extra piece of pizza” when needed for a student who forgot his lunch.
If that wasn’t enough, Gurland recounted one more instance, on a day when she failed to send ice packs in her children’s lunch boxes. Fearing the cold cuts in her childrens’ sandwiches would spoil, Gurland called the school nurse, who went to the kids’ classrooms and brought the meat back to her refrigerator to keep until lunchtime.