A cold cheese sandwich, fruit and a carton of milk might not seem like much of a meal — but that's what's on the menu for students...

Share story

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A cold cheese sandwich, fruit and a carton of milk might not seem like much of a meal — but that’s what’s on the menu for students in New Mexico’s largest school district without their lunch money.

Faced with mounting unpaid lunch charges in the economic downturn, Albuquerque Public Schools last month instituted a “cheese sandwich policy,” serving the alternative meals to children whose parents are supposed to be able to pay for some or all of their regular meals but fail to pick up the tab.

Such policies have become a necessity for schools seeking to keep budgets in the black while ensuring children don’t go hungry. School districts including those in Chula Vista, Calif.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; and Lynnwood have also taken to serving cheese sandwiches to children with delinquent lunch accounts.

Critics argue the cold meals are a form of punishment for children whose parents can’t afford to pay. Parents who qualify for free meals are not affected.

“We’ve heard stories from moms coming in saying their child was pulled out of the lunch line and given a cheese sandwich,” said Nancy Pope, director of the New Mexico Collaborative to End Hunger. “One woman said her daughter never wants to go back to school.”

Some parents have tearfully pleaded with the School Board to stop singling out their children because they’re poor, while others have flooded talk-radio shows thanking the district for a policy that commands parental responsibility.

Second-grader Danessa Vigil said she will never eat sliced cheese again. She had to eat cheese sandwiches because her mother couldn’t afford to give her lunch money while her application for free lunch was being processed.

Her mother, Darlene Vigil, said there are days she can’t spare lunch money for her two daughters.

“Some parents don’t have even $1 sometimes,” the 27-year-old single mother said. “If they do, it’s for something else, like milk at home. There are some families that just don’t have it, and that’s the reason they’re not paying.”

Albuquerque Public Schools students receive a cheese sandwich in lieu of a hot meal if they have exceeded a set amount of meals charged to their account, ranging from two at high schools to 10 at elementary schools. The schools’ Web site warns: “Once the charging limit is met, students will be offered an alternate meal consisting of a cheese sandwich and a beverage.”

The School Nutrition Association recently surveyed nutrition directors from 38 states and found more than half of school districts have seen an increase in the number of students charging meals, while 79 percent saw an increase in the number of free lunches last year.

In New Mexico, nearly 204,000 low-income students — about three-fifths of public-school students — received free or reduced-price lunches at the beginning of the school year, according to the state.

“What you are seeing is families struggling and having a really hard time, and school districts are struggling as well,” said Crystal FitzSimons of the national Food Research and Action Center.

In Albuquerque, unpaid lunch charges hovered around $55,000 in 2006. That jumped to $130,000 at the end of the 2007-08 school year. It was $140,000 through the first five months of this school year.

Charges were on pace to reach $300,000 by the end of the year. Mary Swift, director of Albuquerque’s food and nutrition services, said her department no longer can absorb that debt.

“We can’t use any federal lunch-program money to pay what they call bad debt. It has to come out of the general budget, and of course that takes it from some other department,” Swift said.

With the new policy, the district has collected just over $50,000 from parents since the beginning of the year. It also identified 2,000 students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and more children in the program means more federal dollars for the district.