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School lunches thrown away

May 13, 2009 10:23:31 AM PDT
The school year is winding down, but the debate over taking food out of children's hands in the cafeteria line is just starting to heat up.Eyewitness News broke the story last month in Fayetteville about how if a child's parents are behind on lunch payments, the student faces having their lunch tray taken from their hands and - in front of their peers - tossed in the trash.

We've shared video of it happening with a county commissioner who's a former school principal, and the superintendent has responded as well.

An ABC11 photojournalist caught one of the incidents on tape in a Cumberland County elementary school. The student had her hot lunch snatched out of her hands in front of classmates after a cafeteria worker realized the child's lunch account was overdrawn.

The student was given a peanut butter sandwich and juice. The hot lunch was eventually thrown away.

Dozens of viewers responded to our story on abc11.com.

"I couldn't believe my eyes when I read that they threw the lunch away!! Send a note home, or better yet, give the lunch to the child that day, but call the parent immediately that very day. But to take a hot lunch away and throw it in the trash can is pure stupidity," one viewer wrote.

But many viewers shared this opinion:

"It is the parents fault! The school notifies the parents about the negative balance many times. It is sad that the child was embarrassed. The child should have received the alternate lunch before even going through the line."

We shared the story with Breeden Blackwell. He's a Cumberland County commissioner and retired elementary school principal. He says the system has to come up with a better way of identifying children whose accounts are overdrawn before they get to the point of purchase. But, he also says parents and students have to do a better job too.

"No child should be embarrassed for whatever reason in school," he said. "If you tell your child your lunch money will be on the counter at the house every morning and they don't pick it up, that's their responsibility. But if the system lost $40,000 last year, that's serious business."

Many have said that throwing a perfectly good lunch away makes no sense, but school officials say it isn't that simple.

"The problem is once the kid touches the tray it's either let him go on with it or we have to dispose of it," explained interim Cumberland County superintendant Tim Kinlaw.

Kinlaw said he's been wrestling to come up with a solution to the problem and thinks the answer may lie in allowing cafeteria worker access to the school's computer-based telephone notification system.

"She pulls up her data sheet. She can hit on the computer that name's on a list, click that name, click that name, click that name, click that name, hits the button. It goes out, your child, so the parent would know daily if their kid is in a deficit," he offered.

It's a process Kinlaw hopes to implement throughout the system next school year.


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