Carter in the classroom

Why Are Students Showing Up at School Cafeterias Without Lunch Money?

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It's happening in cafeterias all over the country -- students showing up without lunch money and being given "alternate meals."

The process surprised many of us, even leading to the practice having a name -- lunch shaming.

Schools said they're doing their best to fix it, but are they playing a role in the problem?

Earlier this year a Fort Worth grandmother was so shaken by what happened to her granddaughter she had to put it on paper.

She wrote, "my granddaughter said they threw away my lunch and it was my favorite lunch. Her little eyes were just filled with tears."

Students and parents told us it happens all the time. Students line up for lunch, pick out what they want, and get to the cash register only to find out they can't have it because their lunch account is overdrawn.

District after district in North Texas reported being owed $70,000, $90,000, or more than $100,000 in unpaid lunch fees. Yet, all proudly say, "No child goes hungry."

They're offered an alternative lunch. But is that any better?

"He comes home one day in tears, just sobbing," a North Texas mother told us about her son.

"He said, 'Can I take something different for lunch because I got another frozen peanut butter sandwich today.'"

Former State Lawmaker Helen Giddings said one of her staffers left work to have lunch with her child at school and saw student after student who didn't have money in their lunch accounts.

"Their lunch was taken and thrown in the trash, in front of their face and in front of the face of their peers," said Giddings.

Giddings wrote a bill making it a law in Texas that schools had to offer the same lunch to all students, whether they had money or not, and go after their parents for money at a later date.

"I thought it was a no brainer, slam dunk," said Giddings. "The bill that I filed in 2017 was killed four times."

Some lawmakers saw it as a handout and felt parents should be responsible enough to handle their bills.

The problem of unpaid lunch accounts is universal. It happens in some of the most affluent school districts in Texas and many of those kids said the problem has nothing to do with parents not paying money.

"I think sometimes they get too much food," one student told us. "If you get an ice cream, a meal, and a bunch of snacks."

Snacks, add-ons, a la carte items, they're in virtually every school cafeteria. Sure, kids get the regular lunch, but they're allowed to buy more, at an extra cost.

Could this be why they run out of money? Parents said absolutely.

"A couple of years ago, we got hit in one day with a $40 bill," said Chelle Willison. "Come to find out she bought ice cream for everyone."

There are rules in place by the federal government about the nutritional guidelines of add on snacks, nothing stopping kids from buying as many as they want.

"I thought it was ridiculous," said Willison.

We asked dozens of North Texas School districts if they police how many snacks kids buy each day? Almost all said no. But parents can notify the school if they want limits set.

It's something you might want to consider, depending on your child's age. In many schools, kindergarteners can also select as many snacks as they want.

"Some days he's just eating snacks. He's not eating lunch, he's just eating snacks and how are we knowing that?" asked Virginia Alexander.

"When mine was in kindergarten, it would start in the morning with two cinnamon rolls and juice. then at lunch he would get all of the extras too," said Willison.

The extras, provide extra revenue to lunch system that runs on tight margins ... We obtained reports from several districts and found thousands of dollars in snacks purchased every week, per school.

"But if you're feeding my kid chips, soda, muffins and donuts and you are holding me accountable, it's like you're the drug man, that's not fair to me," said Rashada Reynolds.

A financial hit to parents, and a much bigger price for students who cope with the shame of running out of money for lunch.

Giddings is no longer in office, so her efforts to fix this have gone away. She said school districts can make their own rules to limit snacks, extra purchases, and find a way to feed kids the same meal not this brown paper bag.

It's up to parents to encourage districts to come up with better policies.

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