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USDA Tells Schools: Don't Refuse Food To Students Who Owe

U.S. school systems should not take cafeteria lunches away from students whose parents have not paid their accounts, says the Department of Agriculture.

The agency is responding to a January incident in which a Utah elementary school served students food but threw it away when their accounts were found to have a negative balance.

That episode caused outrage and drew apologies from school officials in Salt Lake City, particularly after it became national news.

NPR's Howard Berkes filed this report for our Newscast unit:

"Under Secretary of Agriculture Kevin Concannon says in a letter to state school chiefs that schoolchildren should not be subjected to undue embarrassment and stigma when they have outstanding balances in their school lunch accounts.

"That's a response to the incident in Salt Lake City last month when school lunches were taken from children and tossed in the trash due to unpaid bills. Parents at the school complained they weren't adequately notified.

"Concannon urged school districts to adopt clear procedures for payment and notification of overdue balances.

"The Salt Lake City school board is seeking an independent audit of the incident, and plans to spend nearly $50,000 for public relations help."

Earlier this month, the USDA announced its plans to observe the annual International School Meals Day, which highlights the role schools play in child nutrition. This year's event will be held on March 6.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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