A handful of children at Boulder Bluff Elementary School burst into tears inside the school's cafeteria Thursday when their lunch trays — filled with hot food — were replaced with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The students already had sat down at their tables, and in some cases had started eating, when the switch was made. A chaotic scene erupted where some teachers and parents in the lunchroom tried to scrounge together enough money to buy back the students' hot meals from the cafeteria staff, according to observers.
Parents of more than 90 students at Boulder Bluff in Goose Creek have not updated their children's lunch balances, meaning the school is feeding children meals even though the parents owe money. The school had allowed students who owed money to receive the "lesser" option of two hot meals, but after sending several reminder notices to parents who failed to pay, officials decided to change that policy this week.
Thursday was supposed to the be first day for 37 students who owed more than $6 to receive cold meals, said Pam Bailey, the Berkeley County School District's public relations director. Teachers were told to place students at the front or back of the lunch line to indicate who was designated to receive a different meal.
But many teachers forgot when they entered the cafeteria, and students proceeded through the lunch line as though nothing had changed, Bailey said. Only when students got to their seats did some teachers and cafeteria employees realize the error. Children cried as some of the adults took away their full trays and substituted the sandwiches.
Bailey apologized for the way in which the situation was handled, calling it "human error."
"What you had was a plan that didn't work," Bailey said. "Everyone regrets that any child was confused or stressed by what happened. The situation just became overwhelming and difficult to manage. Sometimes when things start going wrong, they escalate."
On Friday, school officials decided to return to the previous lunch system in which students who owe money still receive a hot lunch. Procedures will be re-evaluated on how to transition to a more organized system of hot and cold lunches depending on payment.
Boulder Bluff Principal Diane White was on campus but not in the cafeteria during the confusion, Bailey said. White planned to send a phone message to parents Friday explaining what happened and reminding them to pay their child's lunch balance if money is owed.
The school decided to get tough on families with outstanding balances because its food services budget is nearly $1,000 in debt this year, Bailey said. The school began serving breakfast to students inside classrooms this year but has had trouble reporting the number of meals provided versus the number of meals actually purchased, accounting for some of the debt.
Boulder Bluff Parent Teacher Organization President Michael Skerritt said he understood why Thursday's scene would upset young children but said it's up to parents to pay their children's lunch balance and not "take advantage" of the school's free meals.
Skerritt said that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milk, juice, and fruit are better than nothing.
"It's not like the school is making those students watch everyone else eat," Skerritt said. "As long as they are feeding them something, I think it's OK."