Free lunch: Mom pays off students' balances

DETROIT — A Michigan mother said she has paid all the students' outstanding cafeteria balances at her son's school after his debt of about $5 kept him from a hot lunch.

Amanda Keown, 33, of Dowagiac, Mich., said she didn't realize her son, Dominic Gant, 16, owed any money until May 2, when a cafeteria worker at Dowagiac Union High School took a tray of food from him and threw it away.

When Keown went to the school the next Monday to complain, she forked over $60 — not just to cover her son's balance, but the balances of 18 other students, too.

District officials say they apologize if a student felt embarrassed — that charging meals is not encouraged but allowed and that the incident has prompted the district to formalize its long-standing policy about charging food.

Keown said Dominic was 45 cents short for a $2.45 pizza lunch May 2, a Friday. A cafeteria worker told him he also owed $4.95 for an April 15 meal, she said. Keown said when Dominic offered to pay $2 and bring all of the money he owed the next school day, the worker said he couldn't do that because of the outstanding charge and threw away the food he had selected.

Dominic called his mom from school. She picked him up and took him to McDonald's.

"He was so embarrassed," she said. "I was very, very mad."

In a statement on Dowagiac Union Schools' website, superintendent Mark Daniel said:Keown said school officials explained to her that if outstanding balances aren't paid, the school is stuck footing the bill. She said officials told her letters went out informing parents about unpaid balances; Keown said the one she received was postmarked May 2.

"Although we do not encourage the charging of school lunches, Dowagiac Union Schools does allow charging. Many schools across the nation have very strict policies that say if a child does not have the money, the child does not eat. We are proud to say that we do NOT have this policy.

"On average, we have close to 150 students who follow our normal procedure to allow a lunch charge on any given school day. On the day of question, there were four high school students and a total of 76 district-wide who were allowed to charge without incident following normal procedure."

Daniel said the employee involved in the incident works for food service vendor Sodexo and did not mean to embarrass the student. He said the district has updated its informal policy on charging food purchases to "a written administrative policy."

"We are highly sensitive to the nutrition needs of our student population," Daniel wrote. "District-wide, teachers, staff, secretaries, lunch personnel, and para-professionals regularly help students by either paying out of their own pockets for lunches, or purchasing snacks and other foods to keep in their rooms for students."

Keown said she picked up the other students' lunchroom tabs because she doesn't believe they're being treated fairly. He also noted: "When a student does not follow procedure to obtain permission to charge, the lunch the student has selected must be discarded, rather than given to another student per health code rules."

"I'm hoping they can enjoy the rest of their school year and be able to eat lunch," she said.

Keown has started an online petition demanding that sandwiches be available for kids who have outstanding balances. She said she also plans to complain to the school board.

Earlier this year, Cayden Taipalus, 8, made headlines when he began a fundraising campaign to make sure all the students at his school, Challenger Elementary in Howell, Mich., could have a hot lunch.

He and his mom raised $64 though bottle and can returns and donations. They turned it over to Howell Public Schools to help students pay delinquent lunch fees.

The family then opened an online fundraising site with the motto: "Pay It Forward: No Kid Goes Hungry." According to the family's page on FundRazr, Cayden has raised more than $31,000.


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