The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A school took away a 9-year-old’s cheesy breadsticks because he couldn’t pay. It was his birthday.

Low-income families across the nation face “lunch shaming,” the practice of taking public action against students for unpaid school lunch bills. (iStock)

Jefferson Sharpnack had already been the new kid at school. So last week, after cafeteria staff at Green Primary School in northeast Ohio took away his cheesy breadsticks in front of all his schoolmates because he had run out of money in his lunch account, the 9-year-old came home with a resolute declaration: This had been the worst birthday ever.

On Monday, his story, and his grandmother’s outrage, which propelled it into the spotlight, helped to make sure that what happened to him would not happen again to students in Green, scoring a small victory for low-income families in the national debate around “lunch shaming,” the practice of taking public action against students for unpaid school lunch bills.

Critics say the policy singles out low-income students and humiliates them; school administrators counter that action has to be taken to tackle the mounting meal debt straining their already-overstretched budgets.

According to WEWS-TV, an ABC affiliate, Sharpnack had moved with his two brothers last month to stay with their grandmother, Diane Bailey, in Green, Ohio. The children were supposed to be enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, but because there was a delay in the paperwork, Sharpnack was given a note on Aug. 30 warning that his lunch account was in the negative. Bailey called the school and thought she had ironed things out. Then on Tuesday, Sharpnack’s ninth birthday, cafeteria staff publicly replaced his regular meal with what the school described as an alternative meal.

“When I was going to check out, the lunch lady didn’t say anything, took away my cheesy breadsticks and sauce, put them over there, and took out bread on cheese from the fridge and put it on my tray,” Sharpnack said to WEWS-TV.

Bailey said she was left in tears when she heard what had happened.

“In my mind, he didn’t owe anything. I owed the money, the parents, the school district,” the grandmother said. “My other question is, if they take the food off of your tray, they have to throw it away. … You’re going to throw it away and not feed the child? That doesn’t make sense to me.”

On Sunday, the school district serving Green said it was examining its policies. And on Monday, the district’s superintendent, Jeffrey L. Miller II, announced that per a new policy, “All students enrolled in PreK through twelfth grades will receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of their account balance.”

In response to inquiries on why the district had decided to change its policy, spokeswoman Julia McMahon did not mention Sharpnack but wrote to The Washington Post, “Our administration felt strongly that the time to make a change in our lunch guidelines was now and the change took place today.”

Green Local Schools is the latest battleground in a years-long debate around lunch shaming. A federal report found that, in 2014, nearly half of all school districts had policies that singled students out for meal debts, “PBS NewsHour” reported.

In 2016, a third-grader in Alabama returned home with a stamp that read, “I need lunch money,” shocking his parents, who said it felt as though the school was treating students “like cattle.”

In May, a school district in Rhode Island announced that any student with unpaid lunch debt will be given only one option for lunch: a sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich. Officials told the Providence Journal at the time that the new rule was necessary because the district had thousands of dollars in unpaid lunch money — a burden on its multimillion-dollar budget deficit. After nationwide backlash and a flurry of donations, the district rolled back the policy.