Special Needs Child Forced to Go Hungry When School Throws Out His Lunch

school lunch"My mouth was watering, I was starving, and the lunch lady took my lunch away and threw it in the garbage." That's what Alex Coan told his mom when he came home from school in tears this week. The 9-year-old with special needs just became the latest kid in America to deal with school rules that will let a child go hungry while his perfectly good food is thrown in the garbage.

It turns out Alex had been charging lunch, and his lunch account was overdue. The only problem? His mom happens to be my aunt, and she told The Stir this week that no one at his school bothered to tell her that her son had charged too many lunches ... until after they took food way from the child and threw it in the garbage.

How could this happen? And to a kid on the autism spectrum no less?

When The Stir called the Kennett Consolidated School District in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Assistant to the Superintendent Mark Tracy told us that district policy allows kids to run up to a $20 charge on a lunch account. Once they hit that point, kids are not allowed to eat a regular school lunch; they are given a cheese sandwich.

According to district policy, at $5 over, the child is told they owe the school money. At $10, the district makes a phone call to the parents, and a letter is sent home. The Coans should have received at least two calls and a letter, according to district policy, Tracy said.

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But Alex's mom, Christine, told The Stir that she didn't receive a call OR a letter. And she says when she complained, she was told by the folks in the cafeteria at Greenwood Elementary School that her son simply "fell through the cracks."

"They kill forests of trees sending me home pieces of paper about tag sales for the PTSO, but you can't send me a letter about my kid's lunch account immediately when I owe money?" Christine said. "Don't let it get that far! Let me know right away, and I'll gladly pay!"

As for the cheese sandwich, Christine said her son did get it, after the cashier took away Alex's whole tray of food -- hot dog, milk, and fruit -- and threw it in the trash in front of him. But it only made things worse, not better.

Granted, giving the kids an option would seem better than other schools that have made the news for throwing out kids' food and not giving them an option.

But for Alex, it only compounded the problem.

The fourth grader has what's known as PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). He doesn't deal well with changes, and he's very specific about what he will and won't eat, far beyond your typical picky eater.

"He said it looked and smelled bad, but honestly, he won't eat a cheese sandwich any day!" Christine told The Stir. "Of all the children for this to happen to, it happened to the wrong one. If it had been my daughter, she would have rolled with it, but not Alex."

In fact, the sandwich, and the way the district dealt with it, is what really put Christine over the top. The school is supposed to know how to work with a child who has special needs, she said, but their cafeteria workers clearly did not. When she talked to the school, she says a secretary even told her the school "can't be responsible for your son's limitations."

"That got me fired up. He's special needs," she said. "They ARE responsible."

Alex has what's known as an IEP (Individualized Education Program), and he's also protected under Section 504, a federal law that protects students with disabilities. According to Tracy, a child's IEP is supposed to be linked to the cafeteria's "point of sale" system so a lunch cashier would know if there was an issue with a child that related to their eating (not just autism but issues such as any food allergies). It seemed that there was no such link for Alex, but Tracy said he could not speak to an individual student's IEP because of confidentiality.

Alex's mom said the way it was all handled shows a problem in how the district deals with special needs kids -- from the way it upset her son to have his lunch "snatched from his hands" to the cheese sandwich that was simply not an appropriate replacement.

"It was, for him, a very traumatic experience because of the way he's wired," she explained. That afternoon, he came home from school crying and hungry, and after eating something from his family's kitchen, he went immediately to bed. The next day, he begged to stay home from school. Now, three days later, Christine is still worried about the lasting effects of the incident.

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Tracy said the rules are in place to protect the district because they can't bear the cost burden of children not paying for lunch, a fact Christine said she can appreciate. Her issue instead is with the way the district went about this -- from not following their own policy about notifying parents to not working with a special needs student. Her son never should have been in the situation in the first place, she said, but when he was, there should have been a little more compassion for a 9-year-old.

"I don't expect to not pay for my children's lunch; we have never 'not paid'! But I don't think any child should be subjected to that. They shouldn't see perfectly good food thrown out in front of them; they shouldn't be hungry.

"He's going to be worried, legitimately worried, every time he goes to buy lunch," she continued.

Watching his lunch get thrown out won't happen to Alex again. The Coans have since put $100 into Alex's account -- to cover the $20, plus fees, plus a charge for the lunch he wasn't allowed to eat, plus plenty of cash to cover him in the future -- and they're going to be hyper-vigilant.

"I just am so used to getting so many papers home from the school, I guess I expected them to send one home, to let us know!" Christine admitted. She won't make that mistake again.

But she said she spoke to The Stir to warn other parents that this kind of thing can happen to their kids, that they can fall through the cracks, that you can't depend on the schools to keep you up to date ... because she never wants another kid to go hungry.

"He was embarrassed; he was hungry; he was upset," she explained. "But it's not just my kid, I don't want this to happen to another child."

When was the last time YOU checked your child's lunch account? What would happen at your child's school if they didn't have money in there?


Image via US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

autism, elementary school, school lunch


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Laura Palmer

While I agree  that a child should not go without food because his lunch account was overdue, but I am not really sure what his being autistic has to do with anything.... 

fave82 fave82

^^ I agree. Autistic or not, no kid should have his lunch chucked in the trash. That's just a waste. If it's to the point where they can't get lunch then someone should be responsible for finding the kid BEFORE they get the food and letting them know. I mean, they're tracking them down after the fact anyways, just look for them ahead of time.

Einyn Einyn

Just because he's autistic doesn't mean he should be treated specially. He was given a lunch. He didn't have to starve. Yes because he has autism this change might be upsetting but ultimately it's his mothers choice to have him in mainstream school where upsetting situations happen often and her responsibility to check that her bills are paid. This doesn't fly in the real world. Forgot to check if I have to pay my power bill? It's your fault you didn't remind me of my own personal responsibility! How dare you cut me off! These parents are bullshit. So many others obviously remember to pay with no problem. Learn responsibility and stop whining to the media.

nonmember avatar TexasMom

@Laura Palmer: something that is just a temporary upsetting incident to a non-autistic person could result in a debilitating phobia for an autistic person, depending on where they are on the spectrum. This article is concerned with the effect of such an experience on someone who has autism and is not suggesting his lunch was taken away because he has autism. If you are still unsure, there are plenty of autism awareness resources on the internet that you can consult. I hope the media scrutiny will push this school district to evaluate and enforce their plans for making special needs kids feel safe and cared for.

nonmember avatar Kayla

I'm sorry for the boy, but I am tired of hearing these stories that completely blame the school I worked in a school cafeteria yes they SHOULD have gotten a hold of her, if that school is anything like mine in a small hick town in utah then the parents can check their childs lunch balance ONLINE! The school here has automated systems to call, and even if they had someone call they might not have a new number a new address a new email they cannot be held 100% responsible if the parent was too lazy to come in and check their kids balance. I dont know what the price for lunch are up there but here it's $2.00 for lunch if its like that up there then thats 2 weeks of time for the parent to be like hey I haven't paid any lunch money in a while I should check.
The one who suffered was the child, but it's both his mothers fault and the schools fault.

nonmember avatar Vriska

I would have flown of the damn hinges!!! How is throwing away his tray saving the school money?? That is a waste of money and food!! Surely they could tell kids the day the week before they maxed out there limit that monday they wouldnt be allowed to get a tray till mom and dad paid, and send a note home! Less waste of money that way, and kids get to eat!

My son is also autistic, and the textures of certain foods (for example lettece or oranges) make him gag, choke, nauseas or even vomit. He has a very limited amount of food that doesnt make him sick. That is why I planned on sending my son's lunch to school. He is so picky I cannot possibly expect the school to provide for him.

Zoras... ZorasMommy

As a parent with an Autistic child, you try to feed something they do not like to them. My son will not eat many foods. If the school gave my son a cheese sandwich, he would lick it and then throw up. His senses are way more active than mine or any one elses. He can not put certain textures on his mouth (or even against his body) without a reaction. So yes, my son would have went hungry because the school failed to give him something appropriate given he has a LEGITIMATE MEDICAL CONDITON. The cafeteria is responsible to know allergies and aversions.

nonmember avatar alexandra

First 3 comments come from perfect people with perfect angels and no clue what a special needs child entails. Of course if something upsets their perfect angels, God and everyone will hear about it. Imo, I know schools cant afford to lose money but there has to be a better way to deal with it.

CLM3345 CLM3345

I always feel terrible for the child when I read stories like these. Poor guy had to go without lunch when there was food there for him. That's awful. But I agree with the other commenters, why are parents not paying more attention to the food accounts? This is a bill like any other bill you pay. Parents need to set these account up on their bill pay, or write a check every 2 weeks or month to cover the cost of food. Parents should not be forgetting to make sure their children have lunch money.

LeeshaE LeeshaE

What previous posters are missing here, and I assume they are not parents of special needs children, is this child had an IEP which is contract between the parents and the school. IEP include protocols to contact parents because some children aren't able to properly express themselves, these routes of contact are put in place for situations ranging from lunch, to behavior, or even homework. They are set up to help the child in every way possible and the schools receive tons of grants because the child is labeled "disabled." It is an action plan that gives the school more control, which is specifically outlined, but parents always have veto power. The amount of communication between special ed teachers and parents are much greater and more frequent than the average parent/ teacher relations. This child's para or special ed teacher should have been directly reaching out to the parent before this happened.

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