Fifth-grader Victoria Greaves moved through the cafeteria line in Attleboro this week in that timeless, chatty procession of pupils grateful for a chance to break up the school day.
The 11-year-old honor student reached for her $2.40 lunch, an apple and two Twizzlers, and shuffled toward the cashier.
The cashier checked the balance in Victoria’s meals account: $1.17. “Honey, do you have any more money?” the food worker asked.
“No, I don’t,” she answered, puzzled.
The girl’s food suddenly found itself on the fast track to the trash barrel.
In a scene that seems more akin to “Oliver Twist” than 21st-century Massachusetts, Victoria and about 25 other students at the Coelho Middle School were denied lunch this week because they could not pay in cash or their pre-paid accounts were overdrawn.
Families are outraged, the food service is apologizing, and school officials have launched an investigation.
“There are murderers and rapists who ate lunch in prison that day, but my daughter didn’t get anything to eat?” said John Greaves, whose daughter left the school bus in tears on Tuesday.
“I was confused,” Victoria said of her lunch-line surprise. “They just said they couldn’t charge at school anymore.”
The get-tough approach stunned and embarrassed Coelho students, who can pay as they move through the lunch line or draw on accounts their parents replenish during the school year.
“I live two minutes from the school and could have brought the money,” said Greaves, who works as a night supervisor for UPS. “Don’t leave kids hungry all day.”
The school principal, Andrew Boles, said he did not approve of what occurred and was not aware of what had happened until late that afternoon, when he began fielding complaints. About 180 of the school’s 650 pupils, as well as school personnel, were in the cafeteria at the time, Boles said.
“We’re looking into everything,” said Boles, who is in his first year as principal. “I’m just absolutely appalled that this happened here. Every child will eat. This should not have happened, and it will not happen ever again.”
Whitsons School Nutrition, the food-service company that provides meals to Attleboro schools, has placed one of its employees at the school on paid leave pending completion of an investigation by the company and school system.
“Whitsons does not have a policy in place where we would withhold meals from a child. What ended up happening at the school was the act of a couple of individuals who were acting on their own,” said Holly Von Seggern, a spokeswoman for the Islandia, N.Y., company.
What happened was a shock, even for students who were not challenged by the cashier, who is employed by Whitsons. Greaves said those pupils began offering some of their own lunches — an apple, chips, other food — to classmates who had been turned away.
His daughter, Greaves said, was both hurt and proud when she told her father about what happened at lunch.
“Others pooled and pitched in,” he said. “You have to be proud of those kids.”
Greaves said he had not seen any notices about his daughter’s lunch balance this year, although Boles said Whitsons regularly provides the school with printouts about overdrawn accounts, which are sent home in student folders every Wednesday.
In the past, Greaves said, he would give his daughter a check for $20 or more whenever he received notices the account was overdrawn.
Von Seggern said the Whitsons policy in Attleboro is to alert the district after a child has eaten five meals without paying.
Then, she said, “the district is responsible for reaching out to the families to clear the balance.”
Families also can apply for free or reduced-price meals if they fall within federal income guidelines. The Attleboro schools had an outstanding balance of about $1,800, according to Von Seggern, which she said is not a high amount.
Even if a child or the family cannot pay, Von Seggern said, the company will provide a free meal of a cheese sandwich, fruit, vegetable, and milk. On Tuesday, instead, meals were denied or dumped in the trash.
“We would not condone what happened at Attleboro, from the accounts that we’ve heard,” said Von Seggern, who added that the company was informed that up to 25 students were affected. “And we wouldn’t advocate throwing a meal away that was already served. That’s upsetting and wasteful.”
Victoria Greaves can relate. When she arrived home Tuesday afternoon, she said, her tears flowed from more than embarrassment and anger. More than anything, she said, “I was really hungry.”