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As Virginia Beach's school lunch debt grows, it's time to end kids' gravy train  August 2, 2016 – 02:18 pm
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Lemme ask you something. Would you hand your 14-year-old daughter a limitless credit card and drop her off at the mall?

Of course not.

One mother told me that's essentially what the Virginia Beach public schools are doing when they allow students to charge food to online accounts, even if the parent provides the child with a nutritious homemade lunch every day, has intentionally put no money in the account and doesn't want their kid buying cafeteria fare.

Misty Scanlon, a construction project manager, says she always packs a healthy lunch for her daughter and makes sure there is no money in the ninth-grader's lunch account, yet her kid frequently augments her lunch with extras such as fries, Doritos and $1.35 drinks.

Scanlon says her daughter in elementary school once racked up $56 in lunch charges, which her mother learned about only after the school began hounding her to pay.

It's hard to turn off the "free" food spigot, Scanlon says.

Scanlon admits that her daughter is at fault but says she'd like the school to support her in deciding what her daughter eats and how much money she spends.

"It's so frustrating, " Scanlon says. "They're not doing us any favors with the lessons they're teaching the kids. I have no say in what my daughter can charge at lunch time."

Scanlon says she deposited $20 in her daughter's account at the beginning of the school year for the occasional treat. But when the girl came home one day with a full lunchbox and four empty Doritos bags, Scanlon decided to put an end to the waste.

"I said, 'That's it, we're done, ' " Scanlon recalls.

She let the account drain to zero and told her daughter to stop buying food in the cafeteria.

Yet she says the school continues to allow her daughter to go into lunchtime debt. The only way mom knows the extent of the damages is to go online each night and check.

While we chatted on the phone, she looked: $11.80. Up from $9 last time she checked.

School spokeswoman Eileen Cox said Tuesday that parents are supposed to receive an email when children overdraw meal accounts. Schools also attempt to flag kids who've been forbidden to use the cafeteria line.

"Can we do a better job of it in some instances?" Cox asked. "Yes we can."

Until recently, "buying" cafeteria food without money didn't happen. Students with empty or overdrawn accounts were offered the dreaded "alternative lunch" of something like a cheese sandwich, an apple and milk.

That bland substitute seemed to keep a lid on unpaid lunch bills.

But school officials - apparently more concerned with children's shame than with fleecing the taxpayers - abolished the alternative lunch and began giving kids full lunches, even if their accounts were in the red.

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On Sunday, The Pilot reported that this squishy decision had sent lunch debt - some of it uncollectable - soaring.

"Meal debt among active students jumped from $28, 651 in April 2014 - before alternative lunches were cut - to $110, 561 by the next year, according to a food services audit, " The Pilot reported. "... As of Oct. 14, the combined meal debt of active students and those no longer in the division was $237, 268."

Let's be clear. We're not talking about hungry kids from needy families. Applying for free or reduced lunches is easy, school officials tell me. Of the roughly 68, 000 students in Virginia Beach, 19, 798 - or about 28 percent - receive free lunches, and 5, 724 get lunch at reduced prices.

The Beach's limitless lunch system is aimed instead at the kids whose families can afford to feed them. Perhaps some of the parents, like Scanlon, are angry at a system that allows their kids to surprise them with unexpected bills.

"It's a war I am not winning, " Scanlon wrote in online comments following Sunday's news story.

School Board Chairman Dan Edwards said Tuesday that the alternative lunch was abolished because educators believed it "served to embarrass the child who may or may not be at fault" for not having lunch or lunch money.


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