TWIN FALLS, Idaho – Junior high school students in this southern Idaho town who owe money on past cafeteria lunches have received a firsthand lesson in economics and debt.
It came in the lunch room, not the classroom, when students with outstanding balances saw their hot food trays publicly dumped into the garbage and replaced with sack lunches.
"It was perfectly legal, and it was not done to set those students apart from the others," Mary Lu Barry, secondary programs director for the Twin Falls School District, told The Times-News. "It was done to send the message to students that if they want regular school lunch they have to pay the fee."
About 150 students at Vera C. O'Leary Junior High School ended up with sack lunches on Monday, but were still charged the full price for a hot lunch.
Students at the school have accounts that they use with a fingerprint identification system at the cafeteria's cash register. The cost of lunch is automatically displayed and deducted from a student's account.
The district allows students to run credit balances. But after finding students were $600 behind in lunch fees, the district sent letters to parents letting them know about the problem. Cafeteria workers also told students they needed to pay up.
But district officials said those warnings went mostly unheeded.
"It's like a restaurant — you can't just eat there if you can't pay for the food," said Susan Henderson, food service supervisor for the Twin Falls School District. "We are a business, too. We have to have the money to pay for the food we serve."
Henderson said the sack lunch for debtors didn't target students who are on the federally funded Free and Reduced Lunch program because they can't afford school lunch.
Tossing out the hot lunches instead was meant to convince students who had the money to pay up.
"What we found is that most of the students had the money, but they just weren't paying for their lunch," Henderson said. "On Monday, some of the students just went to their lockers and got the money to pay for their lunch."
Barry said after the hot food went into the garbage the student debt of $600 was reduced to $225.