Created: 02/05/2014 10:53 PM KAALtv.com
By: John Doetkott
(ABC 6 News) -- A school district in Utah stirred up controversy recently after staff threw away $2.00 lunches for nearly 40 students because the students did not have enough money in their accounts to pay for them.
The students were given fruit and milk instead, but still many parents were outraged, saying it was both a waste of food, and an injustice for the students.
In the Austin school district, students can buy three full meals on credit before staff can only offer them a more modest free meal.
"We really, really hate when they can't have the full meal because we're not sure what their nutritional habits are at home,” said Mary Weikum, the district’s food services director.
Weikum said it's a situation they look to avoid at all cost, but in Austin the meal service is self-sustaining, meaning they need parents to pay their bills in order to stay viable.
"If we go in the red, I should say, then eventually we'll have to take money from the general fund,” Weikum said. “And we don't ever want to do that because that is money for classroom education."
And parents know it's on them to keep their child's account and stomach full.
"It may seem like the kid is getting punished, but really it's the parent's problem if they're not keeping their account where it needs to be,” said Jen Haugen, a dietitian and mother of two.
Haugen said that at the end of the day, the focus should be on keeping children happy and healthy.
"It should still be required that the kid receives nourishment that will keep them full and provides them actual good nutrients,” Haugen said. “Then maybe figure out what they can do to communicate with the parents."
And school officials said that communication is key as they work to make sure no one goes hungry.
"If parents are having trouble making a lunch payment, please just call our office,” Weikum said. “We will always work out a payment plan so that the student can eat the regular meal. Always."
In Austin, staff do send notes home with students when their accounts are getting low, but officials said they know those notes don't always make it into parents' hands, so they also offer an online notification service to help keep families on track.