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School lunch worker quits after being forced to refuse hot meal to poor student

(Seth Perlman/AP)

Stacy Koltiska said that she will never forget the look in the little boy’s eyes. As an elementary school lunchroom staffer, her job was to work the register for the children when they paid for their meals.

But the boy had a negative balance on his account, and a new policy in the Canon-McMillan, Pa. school district this year prevents cafeteria workers from serving a hot meal to students who owe more than $25. Koltiska said she had to follow the policy and was ordered to refuse the boy his hot meal because he couldn’t pay for it.

“As a Christian, I have an issue with this,” said Koltiska, of Canonsburg, Pa. “It’s sinful and shameful is what it is.”

Rather than continue to enforce the policy at Wylandville Elementary School in Eighty Four, Pa., Koltiska tendered her resignation last week. Koltiska said in an interview that she had worked for the school district for two years. She said she was stunned by the new policy, which began this fall.

Students who were refused the hot meal instead got a sandwich made of two slices of wheat bread and a single, cold slice of “government cheese,” Koltiska said. The contents of the hot lunch, such as chicken nuggets or corn dog bites, were thrown away, Koltiska said, even though parents would still be charged the full regular price of $2.05 for the meal. Koltiska said that she resigned out of a moral obligation.

Video: School lunch worker speaks out over ‘cheese sandwich’ policy, firing

“God is love, and we should love one another and be kind,” Koltiska said. “There’s enough wealth in this world that no child should go hungry, especially in school. To me this is just wrong.”

The Canon-McMillan school district’s superintendent, Matthew Daniels, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. He told Action News 4 WTAE that the policy has cut down on the number of parents who don’t keep current on their lunch accounts, and that the policy does not target those who qualify for financial assistance.

“There has never been the intent with the adoption of this policy to shame or embarrass a child,” he told Action News 4, noting that more than 300 families owed the district between $60,000 and $100,000 annually before the policy was put in place; now there are 70 families who owe the district a total of $20,000.

Joe Zupancic, a Canon-McMillan school board member, said the policy was designed to help the school district recoup those thousands of dollars in debt from delinquent accounts.

Zupancic said the board was aware when the policy went into effect this August that the administration was delving into a sensitive issue for parents. But Zupancic noted that the policy did not affect students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, only children whose parents had neglected to settle the bill for their meals. Zupancic said that the school district negotiated payment plans for many families but acknowledged that some of those children with negative balances likely were poor students whose parents could not afford to pay.

“We knew it would be a difficult situation,” Zupancic said. “No one wants to single out kids, least of all a school district.”

Koltiska said that she knows what it’s like to feel hunger. She grew up north of Pittsburgh and survived on food stamps and free lunches at school. “I know the shame I felt, and it was of no fault of my own,” Koltiska said, noting that when she was young, she got a job reading out bingo numbers and saved up enough money for a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.

“I thought if I could dress like the other kids then they wouldn’t know I was poor,” she said.

Since resigning, Koltiska said that she has received messages of support from inmates in a nearby prison who want to donate their food to the schoolchildren and a nun who told Koltiska that she started a revolution “with a cheese sandwich.”

Koltiska said she believes the school administration made a mistake with the new policy. “They’re suits at a board meeting,” she said. “They are not the ones facing a child and looking them in the eye and taking their food away.”

This story has been updated.