Rockville Centre school officials clear up cheese sandwich stigma


Although a new state regulation was passed in June to protect students who cannot afford lunch, Rockville Centre school officials said the district is ahead of the curve on the issue.

On June 8, the New State Board of Education’s 2018-19 Executive Budget added the 2018 Prohibition Against Meal Shaming plan, which states that schools must ensure that, starting this school year, students whose parents have unpaid meal charges are not shamed or treated differently than those who don’t.

At a meeting on Sept. 6 at South Side High School, the Rockville Centre Board of Education announced they are incorporating language from the new law into its existing policy, because they are required to, but said that the district already follows the standards.

Rockville Centre parents had raised concerns about kids being singled out for eating cheese sandwiches at lunch, according to Superintendent Dr. William Johnson.

The state regulation prohibits serving alternate meals to children who cannot afford the $3 lunch, specifically noting cheese sandwiches. “We don’t want the handing out of cheese sandwiches to be stigmatizing,” Johnson told the Herald.

Some parents thought students were only given this meal in that situation, he said, but he assured them that all children are offered whatever is for lunch that day.

“As far as I’m concerned, kids were always able to get a lunch, whatever the lunch was,” Johnson noted. “… A lot of kids just opted for cheese sandwiches. That’s what they happened to like. There are some kids who do want a cheese sandwich, and we don’t want to deny them access to the cheese sandwich.”

Tara Hackett, vice president of the Board of Education, said the board is simply “clearing up the misconception.” She mentioned there were rumors from some parents brewing on social media.

“The cheese sandwich is not the scarlet letter,” Hackett said at the meeting. “…That’s the minimum we would offer a child. The cheese sandwich is not given as a punishment or to scapegoat them in any way.”

Board trustee Liz Dion echoed that “nothing’s changed,” but said that other school districts tend to ostracize students with separate lines for those who get free or reduced-price lunch.

“There’s a change in the law,” she said, “but we always did it this way. Albany is catching up to us.”

If a child forgets their lunch or throws out the lunch their parents gave them and purchases a lunch from the school without money in their account, school officials said, their negative balance is recorded. Robert Bartels, assistant superintendent for business and personnel, said parents are contacted once their child’s balance falls into the negative between $10 and $15, and the student is then informed they cannot spend anymore. However, they are still given lunch, beyond just a cheese sandwich.

“The state is basically saying students don’t have to pay for lunch,” he said.

But the school district has never run into serious issues with collecting money, according to Bartels. He said students in the free and reduced-price program — which accounts for between 10 and 15 percent of the students throughout the district — are usually not the ones who have negative balances. Students who pay full price for lunch tend to neglect paying, he said, but parents often ultimately pay the bill.

The school district’s lunch program for the 2016-17 school year had a budget of about $814,000, according to Bartels, and the district grossed roughly $820,000 by the end of the year between sales and state and federal aid.