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Is this a 'sandwich of shame'? School policy calls out students carrying lunch debt

A student called the controversial policy to everyone's attention by posting a photo of a cheese-and-bread sandwich to Facebook.
/ Source: TODAY

An Indiana high school has been drawing attention for serving what some have called “sandwiches of shame” to students who have debts on their lunch accounts.

The effort is part of a newly enacted policy at Kokomo High School to encourage families to pay off their debt.

A student called the policy to everyone’s attention by posting a photo of a cheese-and-bread sandwich served to a classmate in front of her in the cafeteria line.

“The lunch lady said, ‘You owe $25.60. You have to have this alternative lunch,’” Kokomo High School senior Sierra Feitl told TODAY.

“I was sitting there thinking, do I have enough money? Am I going to be able to get this tray? Is everyone going to see and wonder why I can't get a normal tray, too?”

Under the new policy, students with more than $25 in their accounts are given an alternative lunch. The school notified families about the change at the end of last year but only recently began to enforce it.

The school district has apologized for offending anyone with the new policy, but in a statement defended the need for the new rule, pointing out that 499 students carry debts on their lunch accounts. Only about 10 percent of those accounts are from low-income families, who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

"Some of these people on the list, I'm sorry, are making $100,000 a year,” said David Barnes, the communications director for Kokomo School Corporation. “Family of four, and have a debt over $100. I'm sorry, those people need to pay their bills."

The district says total credit on lunch accounts have put the school in $50,000 in debt, putting it at risk for losing federal funding.

But Feitl said embarrassing students is not the way to go.

“Two slices of bread and two slices of cheese. Absolutely mortifying,” she said in her Facebook picture of the sandwich, posted on Feb. 5 and since shared at least 800 times. “My heart goes out to the kids that I go to school with that get their only meal a day at school.”

The post also drew hundreds of comments, including one parent who wrote, “I cannot see the point of embarrassing a child.” Another said, “I find it ridiculous that everyone is blaming the school for this, instead of the parents.”

The school district has since suspended its alternative lunch policy until February to help give parents a chance to pay up. The move appears to have been effective: The school has received $15,000 in back payments so far.

Follow writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter at @eunkim.