Ohio school district updates policy after child denied standard lunch due to outstanding balance

PHOTO: Nine-year-old Jefferson Sharpnack had an incident at his elementary school in Green, Ohio over an $9 lunch debt.PlayWEWS
WATCH Ohio student is latest child to be 'lunch shamed'

An Ohio woman said her grandson’s lunch was "taken away" because of an outstanding cafeteria balance of $9 -- on what the boy said was his ninth birthday.

Nine-year-old Jefferson Sharpnack was at his school on Sept. 3 when he tried ordering cheesy breadsticks for lunch, but the lunch lady "took away" the items and replaced it with "bread on cheese from the fridge," he told ABC Cleveland affiliate WEWS.

PHOTO: Nine-year-old Jefferson Sharpnack had an incident at his elementary school in Green, Ohio over an $9 lunch debt. WEWS
Nine-year-old Jefferson Sharpnack had an incident at his elementary school in Green, Ohio over an $9 lunch debt.

Jefferson's grandmother, Diane Bailey, from Green, told the station that her grandson had come home with a note on Aug. 30 claiming he owed $9 on his lunch account. Bailey said she had spoken to the Green Local Schools administrator prior to her grandson being denied lunch and thought his account was in good standing.

Julie McMahan, director of communications and community relations for Green Local Schools told ABC News that Jefferson was provided a lunch.

"The young man was provided a lunch and he did eat. There is some chit chat out there that this child not did eat," she said.

McMahan said Jefferson was provided an "alternative lunch" instead of the standard lunch on the menu that day because his account was in arrears. She could not confirm the balance owed for privacy reasons, she said.

Jefferson and his siblings are supposed to be enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program, Bailey told WEWS.

McMahan said that since the incident, the school has changed its guidelines so that "no child" from pre-K through 12th grade will be served an alternative lunch.

"All students enrolled in PreK through twelfth grades will receive the standard lunch for the day at their respective buildings regardless of their account balance," according to a note sent to families from the school district and provided to ABC News on Monday.

"We are sensitive to the financial hardship families incur and challenges presented due to the cost of school breakfast and lunches. 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 note continued.

There have been a slew of incidents in which children have been left hungry after their families could not pay off their cafeteria accounts -- a practice that’s been called by some as "lunch shaming."

In Rhode Island, the Warwick school district reversed its policy after outcries on providing students with lunch debt "sun butter and jelly sandwiches" until their debt is paid.

A Minnesota high school tried to bar seniors with lunch debt from graduating, according to a report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. An elementary school in Alabama would stamp students’ arms with "I need lunch money," if they incurred debt, AL.com reported.

Experts have weighed in on the negative consequences of lunch shaming.

"It doesn't create a good psychosocial environment for the children at all," said Dr. Collette Poole-Boykin, a child psychiatrist fellow with the Yale Child Study Center and a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit.

Rebecca Rialon Berry, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health, told ABC News that schools should leave children out of financial matters.

"It puts them, essentially, in a very adult position when they don't have the resources at that point to fend for themselves," she said.

ABC News’ Julia Jacobo contributed to this report.