The mother of a Kankakee Junior High School student is alleging that the school denied the student a free lunch when she didn't have money to pay for it.
Paulla Grzych said her 8th grader's prepaid lunch account was short when she recently tried to buy a slice of pizza and a drink for under $3. District policy would have allowed the girl to receive free of charge an alternate lunch consisting of a cheese sandwich, fruit, vegetable and milk, but Grzych said that's something her daughter was never offered.
"I'm not badmouthing the school," said Grzych, whose daughter does not qualify for free or reduced meals. "I'm badmouthing the policy."
While there is a separate lunch option available for students able to pay for it, 86 percent of the district's students qualify for free or reduced meals. Still, denying a student who can not pay, or says he can't pay, is not illegal.
The moral question, however, is one that has been debated in recent weeks as several districts across the country made news for similar reasons.
Cathy Breeck, Kankakee School District 111's food service director, said the district's rules about lunch account balances is a budgetary issue.
"We have expenses that have to be paid," Breeck said. "Schools are going into the red because they are not holding people accountable for paying bills."
Ultimately, schools get to decide how to handle unpaid meal charges, said United Sates Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon, in a letter released shortly after an incident in Utah where students were denied certain lunches and offered replacements instead.
But Concannon indicated he would prefer that schools did not throw out any lunches.
"Denying or taking food away from children is a form of punishment and stigmatizes children whose parents are behind on payments," Concannon said.