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Lunch Shaming: Dallas ISD Offers Free Lunch, Other Districts Offer Brown Bags

After a full morning of science and new math, lunch is that long-awaited break to just be a kid. At least that's what it should be.

Lately, lunch at school keeps raising eyebrows. Parents sent to collection agencies over bills and hot meals taken away from kids.

"I really thought he had been physically injured, that's how bad the pain was," said Shonda Schaefer.

Schaefer went to her son's school to see first-hand what he told her was happening.

"'No, no, no, you have to put this back and here's your lunch,'" and handed him a brown paper bag with literally a frozen peanut butter sandwich in it," said Schaefer.

A paperwork issue meant he wasn't getting his lunch; he went weeks with the brown bag meal and he suffered in silence.

"It wasn't because he was hungry, it was that he was embarrassed and frustrated," said Schaefer.

We gathered students from different schools all over North Texas, they told us, this happens practically every day.

We asked them had they ever seen someone go get lunch and not be able to pay for it? And all their hands went up.

We reached out to school districts --- asking for a dollar amount for lunch accounts in the red. More than half the districts told us they had more than $100,000 in unpaid lunch bills.

“In times where education dollars are so tight, a $100,000 deficit, that's several teacher's positions, several instructional aides or funding that could have went into the classroom for student achievement," said Michael Rosenberger, executive director of food service for the Dallas Independent School District.

Rosenberger said unpaid lunches were crippling DISD. The district applied for a federal grant that would pay them $2 per student to help pay for lunch. DISD went further. They kept their costs at that $2 level, meaning all students could eat free.

DISD Executive Chef Trina Nelson said the program changed the game providing free meals that are still healthy and taste good.

When we asked her if she ever saw kids having to deal with not being paid for lunches, she looked back a few years.

"I was that kid," said Nelson.

She had a single mom who worked two jobs.

"There were days where she just didn't have it. She didn't have it. So, me and my brother would be that kid sitting there with no lunch. Because back then if you didn't have lunch money, you did not eat," said Nelson.

While those days are gone in DISD, they still exist in many other districts.

The grant DISD received is only available to schools with a high percentage of low income students, so many districts simply don't qualify.

"But it's absolutely possible," said Rosenberger, who hopes the government expands the program to all schools.

"One way of looking at it is what a boost to our economy. Local farmers and agriculture if more students were able to eat under a program like this," he added.

Whatever the solution, it can't come soon enough.

"You might as well put that child on a stage by themselves and shine a spotlight directly on down on them. You are calling them out in front of all their peers," said child therapist Laura McLaughlin.

McLaughlin said parents anywhere can forget to pay a bill, but especially in middle and upper income homes, she see kids break down.

"If I were to put myself in that child's shoes I would rather not eat than be given a different lunch," she said.

The students we talked to said that's exactly what happens in their cafeterias.

"We tried to give him the milk, what we had, and what we didn't want. He didn't take it. He just put his head down, turned red, and cried," said a student about their friend who ran out of lunch money.

Many parents and charities set up fundraisers and donation drives to help pay for lunches, but school districts said it really just puts a Band-Aid on the problem.

One former state lawmaker said where they failed schools can step up. It's the "independent" in ISD. Schools can make their own policies. It's up to parents to go in to their school board members and demand a better.

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