An Ohio school district has adjusted its school lunch policy in response to outcry over a 9-year-old student who had his lunch taken away from him on his birthday.
Jefferson Sharpnack turned 9 on Aug. 30, though his celebration was dampened after he was denied his lunch of cheesy breadsticks because he had $9 in unpaid debt on his account.
“He gets off the bus and he says, ‘Grandma! Worst birthday ever!’” his grandmother Diane Bailey told local Fox affiliate WJW. “I asked him what happened and he proceeded to tell me that he wasn’t allowed to pass out a snack, which is a new policy, I understand that. Then he says they took his lunch from his tray and gave him a piece of cheese and bread.”
As Jefferson explained to local ABC affiliate WEWS, he had picked out cheesy breadsticks and sauce, but had them taken away without a word by a school staffer, who swapped his meal for cheese and bread at Green Primary School in Uniontown, Ohio.
Bailey told WJW she has temporary custody of Jefferson and his siblings, and had enrolled them in the Green Local Schools’ free and reduced lunch program.
She said she was told that she would be able to write a check for any unpaid balances on her grandkids’ accounts until the program’s paperwork had processed.
“He was bullied. He was bullied by the school officials. He had his lunch removed from his tray at the age of 9,” she told the outlet, adding to WEWS, “You would take the food off of the tray? You can’t re-serve it. You’re going to throw it away and not feed the child? That doesn’t make sense to me.”
The move evidently made little sense to fellow parents in the district, as their criticism moved Superintendent Jeff Miller to fix the policy and allow all students to receive their standard lunch.
“We are committed to providing our students with a positive, safe learning environment and experience in every aspect of the school day. All students enrolled in PreK through twelfth grades will receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of their account balance,” he said in a statement.
The statement continued: “We are sensitive to the financial hardship families incur and challenges presented due to the cost of school breakfast and lunches. Our staff, in coordination with Family Support Specialists, will continue to work with families to ensure they have access to all available resources to assist with purchasing school meals.”
Bailey was pleased by the district’s prompt response, telling WJW it was “the perfect solution.”
She also revealed that Jefferson’s birthday was salvaged, as the family celebrated with dinner at his favorite restaurant and cupcakes.
Green Local Schools had previously issued a statement to WEWS claiming it was looking into Jefferson’s situation.
“As it relates specifically to our policy, students receive multiple means of communication when their accounts become negative. Currently students who are $15 or more in debt are provided a lunch that includes fruit, vegetables, and either a cheese quesadilla or cheese sandwich,” the statement read. “Additionally, our district works hard to ensure that students who qualify for free and reduced lunches receive them. We have Family Support Specialists on staff whose primary jobs are to reach out and help families in need. It is important to us that students have positive experiences in the lunchroom and all areas of the school. For that reason, we will continue to look into our practices and come up with solutions that work for our students and families.”
A spokesperson for the district did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
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Three-quarters of the 5 billion lunches served in school cafeterias in 2018 were offered at a free or reduced price, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In May, a Rhode Island school district responded to backlash by reversing a policy that would have limited students who held a lunch debt to eating a cold sun butter and jelly sandwich instead of a variety of hot lunch options. It said it implemented the policy because it had accumulated a $77,000 lunch debt.
The School Nutrition Association previously reported that 75 percent of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-2017 school year.