9-year-old student's hot lunch is taken away over a $9.75 unpaid balance, grandmother says

The Ohio boy was given a cheese sandwich to eat instead. The incident happened on his birthday, his grandmother said.

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By Minyvonne Burke

An Ohio elementary school student had his hot lunch taken away and was given a cheese sandwich instead because he had a $9.75 unpaid balance, the boy's grandmother said.

Jefferson Sharpnack, 9, had a hot lunch that included cheese sticks and sauce at Green Primary School in Uniontown, his grandmother, Diane Bailey, told NBC affiliate WKYC. It was taken away on a day last week that happened to be Jefferson's birthday.

"I can't believe that it's cost effective to throw away food and give them cheese and bread," Bailey said. "When he got off the bus, he said 'worst birthday ever.'"

The boy told WKYC he was "a little hurt" by the incident.

Bailey said she had received a letter from the school saying that Jefferson had an unpaid balance of $9.75, which she said she had arranged to pay with a check. But when her grandson went to school, he was denied the hot lunch because of the balance.

She said the district should "change their policy or find a different way other than embarrassing the kids."

A spokesperson for Green Local Schools told NBC News in a statement Tuesday that in addition to the cheese sandwich, Jefferson received a side dish and a serving of milk to drink.

Julie McMahan, the district's director of community relations, said younger students with unpaid balances were given a cheese sandwich while older students got a cheese quesadilla.

That policy has now been changed.

Jeff Miller, superintendent of Green Local Schools, responded to the incident in a statement on Facebook saying that all students in the district will now "receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of their account balance."

"We are sensitive to the financial hardship families incur and challenges presented due to the cost of school breakfast and lunches," he said. "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 incident is the latest in a string of similar events in school districts responding to students' lunch debts.

The Cherry Hill School District in New Jersey faced pushback last month after an assistant superintendent proposed giving tuna sandwiches to students who owe more than $10 and no food to those with a negative balance higher than $20.

In July, the Wyoming Valley School District in Pennsylvania sent a letter to parents warning that unpaid lunch debts could lead to their children being placed in foster care. The district later apologized after accepting a local CEO's $22,000 donation to clear the debt.