ATTLEBORO — As many as 25 students at Coelho Middle School were denied meals or told to throw their lunches away Tuesday because they could not pay or their pre-paid accounts did not contain enough money, school officials said today.
Parents said some of the children cried after they were not allowed to eat or had to toss out their lunches.
School officials said an on-site employee from Whitson’s, the school system’s school lunch provider, apparently gave the order not to extend meals to students who could not pay or whose credit was already overextended.
A Whitson’s spokeswoman apologized today for the incident.
Superintendent Pia Durkin said school officials were not informed of the policy and that the principal did not find out until late Tuesday afternoon.
Durkin said today that school administrators have since ordered cafeteria workers not to refuse any children lunch and have scheduled a meeting with Whitson’s officials.
Durkin also said she placed the on-site director employed by Whitson’s on administrative leave.
“There is no way any child in my school district will ever go hungry,” Durkin said. “Children need to eat.”
Durkin said a procedure that has been used in the past when students can not pay is to provide a cheese sandwich and milk until parents resolve their unpaid bills. She said that has apparently not been followed at Coelho.
Parents said they were told by their children that some pupils in the cafeteria line had already picked up their lunch and were told at the checkout they had to throw it away.
Victoria Greaves, 11, a fifth grader at Coelho, said a cashier told her to throw away her lunch because there was not enough money in her account. She said she threw her meal away and got nothing to eat.
Greaves said “about 20” other pupils also were denied meals.
Victoria’s father John, who met his daughter after school Wednesday, said he was incensed by the incident and that he did not receive a call from the school.
“I’m pissed that when there are people in prison who are getting meals, my daughter, an honor student, is going hungry,” he said. Had he known, he would have brought his daughter lunch money, John Greaves said.
Jen Ingemi, parent of a fifth grade boy, said the girl behind her son in line began crying when she was told to throw her lunch away. He said her son offered to share his lunch.
“This is absolutely outrageous,” said Ingemi.
School Principal Andrew Boles said he learned of the problem late Tuesday afternoon when contacted by a parent. Boles said he is “appalled and concerned” that Whitson’s did not inform him of the action in advance.
“They did not respect me, they did not respect my students and they did not respect their parents,” he said.
Boles said a cafeteria worker spoke to assistant Principal Susan Fortin about students receiving lunch on credit, but did not say students would be forced to throw away their meals.
However, one parent was told by his children that an announcement was made by the assistant principal while meals were being given out that if they could not pay, students would not receive a meal.
Holly Von Seggern, vice president for marketing and community relations for Whitson’s, said the company apologizes for the incident and promised a full investigation.
“We agree that this situation was not handled correctly,” Vonseggern said. “We really want to apologize to the parents of the children who were affected.”
Vonseggern said unpaid balances on students’ accounts are an increasing problem among school lunch providers, but that Attleboro students’ payments are “not out of control.”
Durkin said she was informed by the company’s management that the total amount of outstanding credit balances on all students’ accounts in the district comes to about $1,800.
Durkin said Whitson’s management employees are in the school district today and that she expects to meet Friday with company President John Whitcomb.