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'Worst birthday ever': School denies hot lunch to 9-year-old over unpaid balance

Amid outrage, school changes its policy so all children can be served hot lunches regardless of debt.
/ Source: TODAY

Jefferson Sharpnack’s 9th birthday was pretty terrible. He'd recently started attending a new school, and he thought he’d treat himself to some cheesy breadsticks and sauce at lunchtime to celebrate what should have been his special day.

But after he received his meal, a school employee took it away from him because his lunch account had a balance of $9.75, his grandmother, Diane Bailey, told NBC affiliate WKYC.

“When he got off the bus, he said, ‘Worst birthday ever,’” Bailey told WKYC.

Jefferson said he felt “a little hurt because they took my food.”

Image of cheesy breadsticks
Jefferson Sharpnack, 9, said he felt "a little hurt" when his school took his cheesy breadsticks away over a lunch debt. Getty Images

A spokesperson for Green Local Schools in Green, Ohio, told NBC News in a statement on Tuesday that Jefferson's hot lunch was replaced with a cheese sandwich, side dish and serving of milk.

Bailey said she had called the school earlier that same day to see what she owed for her grandchildren, and she learned there was an outstanding bill. She said she asked whether it would be OK to send the payment the next day and the school agreed. That’s why she thought Jefferson would have no problem enjoying a hot lunch on his birthday, Sept. 3.

“I can’t believe that it’s cost-effective to throw away food and give them cheese and bread — that’s more money,” Bailey said.

“So, I just asked if they could possibly change their policy to find a different way other than embarrassing kids.”

On Monday, the school responded with a policy change. Superintendent Jeff Miller shared a message on the school’s Facebook page.

“All students enrolled in PreK through twelfth grades will receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of account balance,” Miller wrote. “We are sensitive to the financial hardships families incur and challenges presented due to the cost of school breakfasts 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.”

The school district did not respond to a request for comment from TODAY Parents.

The district’s swift response starkly contrasts with that of other schools. Wyoming Valley School District in Pennsylvania sent parents a letter stating that if their child has a lunch debt of $75.25 or more and they don’t pay it, the district would report the parents to family court for their children to be placed in foster care. When a local businessman offered to pay the debt, the school first rejected his offer before finally accepting it.

Cherry Hill School District in New Jersey suggested offering no food to families who had a school debt of more than $20.

Bailey received loads of messages supporting her "win." She said she's maintaining perspective about what happened.

"I didn’t win," Bailey said, "but I hope the children have won something from this."

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