CALIFON, N.J. – It’s bad enough that school children across the nation are going hungry on the skimpy portions offered through the Michelle Obama lunch menu.
At the Tewksbury school district in New Jersey, children who fall $3.10 behind on their food payments get one hard-boiled egg, a package of crackers and a carton of milk for lunch.
The Tewksbury district consists of two schools, one for grades K-4 and one for grades 5-8. Lunches at the school cost $2.40 per day. That means children are only allowed to fall one day behind in their lunch payments before getting stuck with the egg special.
The lunches at Tewksbury, like most in schools across the nation, are subsidized by the federal government.
Frankly, we’re confused. We thought the feds provide low-cost school lunches because many children come from impoverished homes where the food budget is tight, or from homes where meals are not prepared on a regular basis. The government wants to make sure every kid receives proper nutrition and the dignity that comes with eating a full lunch with classmates.
But at Tewksbury, kids who fall a day behind in their payments are left to gnaw on hard-boiled eggs while their friends eat the full serving on the menu.
Apparently school officials are willing to humiliate children into coughing up three dollars and ten cents.
We were unable to determine how many children, if any, have been affected by the new policy at this point.
Tanya Bischoff, the mother of three children in the Tewksbury district, said she asked a group of students at a soccer match this week if they knew of any students who had been affected.
Several kids told her that a fifth-grade boy had been reduced to eating the miniscule lunch, and all of his classmates knew about it.
“It’s a huge humiliation for a kid,” said Bischoff, who said she was stunned when she learned about the new policy. “That something that will probably stick with him the rest of his life.”
Bischoff forwarded EAGnews copies of two letters she received from Maschio’s Food Services Inc., the contractor that provides lunches for the school district.
One letter bragged about how Maschio’s school lunches “are healthy and well balanced and provide students all the nutrition they need to succeed at school.”
But the second letter warned that “a student may have a maximum school lunch account balance of negative three dollars and ten cents (-3.10). After this negative balance has been reached, if no monies are received, the student will receive a hard-boiled egg, a package of crackers and a milk for lunch until a deposit is made to their account.”
The letters were dated in August, but weren’t sent out until September, after school started, according to Bischoff. She said she only heard about the new policy from her children, after it was announced over the intercom during lunch on the first day of school.
“The kids found out before the parents,” Bischoff said. “That’s what made everyone upset.
“My youngest daughter was very nervous. She told me to make sure I have money in her account, because she’s very scared she’s going to be served a hard-boiled egg.”
As a former volunteer in the school cafeteria, Bischoff said she knows how easy it is for young children to lose or forget their lunch money. She said she also understands how easy it can be for parents to forget a lunch payment for a day or two.
“It’s not difficult at all,” Bischoff said. “I volunteered in the cafeteria for years, and I don’t know how many kids came up to me and said they lost their lunch money. They had tears in their eyes and asked me what they were going to do.
“It happens more than you think.”
Bischoff said she has talked to many other parents in the district, and everyone is outraged by the new policy.
“I talked to friends on the phone and they were shocked,” Bischoff said. “In years past, if there was money owed or a child forgot money, they would still give them a meal.
“It’s outrageous. We look at it as if they’re making some sort of statement. This is not about nutrition. This is not because the school can’t afford it. They’re making a punitive statement with this policy. They’re punishing the parent through the child.”
We encountered some confusion about the identity of the official who signed the letter warning parents about the egg policy. It was signed, “Cathy Pepe, Director, Maschio’s Food Services.”
Officials at Maschio’s said Pepe works for the school district. School officials said Pepe works for Maschio’s. We were unable to contact Pepe, wherever she works.
Joanne Untamo, director of operations for Maschio’s Food Services, said the hard-boiled egg policy was established by the school district.
But she defended the policy, saying “no school has any responsibility to serve a child lunch if they don’t have money. Most schools are generous in that they allow a student to charge a few times.
“There are a lot of parents who are not being responsible. If you don’t have the policy, you end up with a lot of outstanding meal balances that don’t get paid.”
When asked if it was right to punish small children because their parents fail to pay, Untamo said “parents can come to board meetings and have input (on the policy).”
Officials at the Tewksbury school board office declined to comment. A detailed message was left with the school district’s attorney, but he failed to return the call.
Headline image: Andrea Nguyen