Criticized school lunch line policy put on hold

A Tampa middle school’s lunchroom incentive policy is on hold for now after a campaign led by students accused it of being discriminatory. Woodrow Wilson Middle School’s popular incentive card program inspired outrage when it was used to determine a student’s place in line to get into the cafeteria at lunch time.

LaShawn Bates is a parent of a sixth-grader at Wilson Middle and has another student who has already moved on from Wilson to high school. She says letting students line up for lunch based on their color-coded incentive cards is antiquated and unfair.

“You have certain children who may be on free or reduced lunch. That could be their only meal for the day. And maybe they’re not the A+ student. Most of those A+ students with the red cards have parents at home that are involved. And I’m not saying it’s every circumstance, but those kids have food in their refrigerator. They’re going to get a meal at night. Whereas, somebody who’s at the back of that line: let’s be honest, socioeconomics kind of follows with how you’ll perform in school. That’s just a fact. But that lunch may be the only food that a kid has for the day. And maybe he doesn’t get enough time to eat it; he gets five minutes to eat and has to throw away the rest.”

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Bates says students can earn incentive cards in a range of ways and they can be used for some things that make the program worth continuing. She gives the example of cards being redeemed to get a snack or a homework pass or attend an after-school event for free. But she opposes the lunch line component. An online petition calling for the school to stop using incentive cards for lunch line position has more than 900 signatures. Before the winter break the principal wrote that she would suspend the lunch line component. Bates says that’s because of the campaign led by two students.

“I commend those two girls for standing up. They have received a lot of backlash and people who haven’t been supportive. We understand, everybody is entitled to their opinion and whatnot, but as children they kind of have been treated what I would say kind of unjustly. But they’re both very strong girls that come from great families and I just commend them for standing up for change. And they said that they didn’t think it was fair that children are placed in the lunch line by their grades. And you know a child with a white card or no card has not the best grades. And it’s somewhat a violation of privacy. They just stood up for what they believe.”

Bates has served on the Parent-Teacher-Student Association Board and says the lunch line was a problem even before the incentive cards were brought into play, but it was still an unfair process.

“So during the first Nine Weeks, before you receive your report card, if you buy the $5 PTSA card you get to line up before the people who may not have purchased the $5 PTSA card. So after the first quarter when the report cards are released they do it as red card – blue card – white card – no card. And the reality is, again, every student regardless of their grades at school should be given the same physical amount of time. But what you had the first few weeks of school was a lot of students complaining that, ‘I only had like 5 minutes to eat.’ You know, ‘I only had 10 minutes to eat.’ Well, why? If your lunch period is 30 minutes, you should be able to grab a table and sit down and start eating.”

Ultimately, Bates says, the problem isn’t just the unfair use of the incentive card program, but the fact that some kids don’t have enough time to eat lunch. She says the real problem is the lunch room spaces are too small for the 650 or so students.

“Last year or the year before we did a fundraiser to add tables outside so the kids would have more space to eat. So you would think that those kids could just – if they brought their own lunch – could grab a table outside and start eating. Well, that’s not the way it works. Because they’re saying they don’t have the staff to manage those kids outside. So you still eat lunch regardless of whether you brought a lunch or whether you are buying lunch you still line up to eat lunch based upon your red, blue, white or no card.”

Bates says parents offered to volunteer to watch over the students eating outside.

Woodrow Wilson Middle School Principal Colleen Faucett declined WMNF News’ interview request, deferring to the school district instead. Tanya Arja, Hillsborough County Public Schools spokesperson, says nothing needs to be done about the size of Wilson’s lunchroom.

“The line this year – for the lunch line – is not taking any more time or any less time than any other year. The students have 30 minutes for lunch. And the principal assures me that when there are students who might need additional time she always extends the lunch line and does not rush students out. So the students have ample time to eat their lunch. There are plenty of seats for every student; so seating is not an issue. And we actually redid the serving area last year at the school to make it more efficient in the lines.”

In mid-December, after the student-led petition, Wilson’s principal announced she would suspend the use of incentive cards to determine a student’s place in the lunch line.

The school district’s spokesperson, Arja, disagrees that it was unfair to use the incentive card program for the lunch line.

“No, I don’t know how it would violate their rights because you don’t know who is standing in the line for what reason. The card doesn’t say anything about your grades or your behavior or your attendance on your card; it is simply a card. So you have no idea if the student that is standing in the line has straight As or if the student next to that one received the card because they had better behavior from one quarter to the next or they had improved their attendance from one quarter to the next. So you have no idea which students are which and why they got the card.”

Arja points out that after the winter break the lunch line portion of the incentive card program will be suspended until the principal can “talk to students and talk to parents and see where they go from here.” She says she has not heard of any retaliation against students who led the criticism of the program.