ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A cold cheese sandwich, fruit and a milk carton might not seem like much of a meal — but that's what's on the menu for students in New Mexico's largest school district without their lunch money.
Faced with mounting unpaid lunch charges in the economic downturn, Albuquerque Public Schools last month instituted a "cheese sandwich policy," serving the alternative meals to children whose parents fail to pick up their lunch tab.
Such policies have become a necessity for schools seeking to keep budgets in the black while ensuring children don't go hungry. School districts including those in Chula Vista, Calif., Hillsborough County, Fla., and Lynnwood, Wash., have also taken to serving cheese sandwiches to lunch debtors.
Critics argue the cold meals are a form of punishment for children whose parents can't afford to pay.
"We've heard stories from moms coming in saying their child was pulled out of the lunch line and given a cheese sandwich," said Nancy Pope, director of the New Mexico Collaborative to End Hunger. "One woman said her daughter never wants to go back to school."
Some Albuquerque parents have tearfully pleaded with school board members to stop singling out their children because they're poor, while others have flooded talk radio shows thanking the district for imposing a policy that commands parental responsibility.
Second-grader Danessa Vigil said she will never eat sliced cheese again. She had to eat cheese sandwiches because her mother couldn't afford to give her lunch money while her application for free lunch was being processed.
"Every time I eat it, it makes me feel like I want to throw up," the 7-year-old said.
Her mother, Darlene Vigil, said there are days she can't spare lunch money for her two daughters.
"Some parents don't have even $1 sometimes," the 27-year-old single mother said. "If they do, it's for something else, like milk at home. There are some families that just don't have it and that's the reason they're not paying."
The School Nutrition Association recently surveyed nutrition directors from 38 states and found more than half of school districts have seen an increase in the number of students charging meals, while 79 percent saw an increase in the number of free lunches served over the last year.
In New Mexico, nearly 204,000 low-income students — about three-fifths of public school students — received free or reduced-price lunches at the beginning of the school year, according to the state Public Education Department.
"What you are seeing is families struggling and having a really hard time, and school districts are struggling as well," said Crystal FitzSimons of the national Food Research and Action Center.
In Albuquerque, unpaid lunch charges hovered around $55,000 in 2006. That jumped to $130,000 at the end of the 2007-08 school year. It was $140,000 through the first five months of this school year.
Charges were on pace to reach $300,000 by the end of the year. Mary Swift, director of Albuquerque's food and nutrition services, said her department had no way to absorb that debt as it had in the past.
"We can't use any federal lunch program money to pay what they call bad debt. It has to come out of the general budget and of course that takes it from some other department," Swift said.
With the new policy, the school district has collected just over $50,000 from parents since the beginning of the year. It also identified 2,000 students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, and more children in the lunch program means more federal dollars for the district.
School officials said the policy was under consideration for some time and parents were notified last fall. Families with unpaid charges are reminded with an automated phone call each night and notes are sent home with children once a week.
Swift added that the cheese sandwiches — about 80 of the 46,000 meals the district serves daily — can be considered a "courtesy meal," rather than an alternate meal.
Some districts, she noted, don't allow children without money to eat anything.
Albuquerque Public Schools "has historically gone above and beyond as far as treating children with dignity and respect and trying to do what's best with for the child and I think this is just another example," Swift said.