CHULA VISTA, CALIF. — When too many parents fell behind on paying for school lunches, the Chula Vista Elementary School District decided to get tough -- on the children.
They told students with deadbeat parents that they had only one lunch choice: a cheese sandwich.
The sandwich, served on whole wheat bread, came with a clear message: Tell your parents to pay up -- or no more pizza and burgers for you.
Cheese sandwiches and other "alternate meals" have been added to menus in school districts across the country as they try to take a bite out of parents' lunch debts.
The strategy worked in Chula Vista: Lunch debts in the district fell from about $300,000 in 2004 to $67,000 in 2006. Some angry parents say success came at too high a cost, however.
The cheese sandwich, they say, has become a badge of shame for the children, who get teased about it by their classmates. One student cried when her macaroni and cheese was replaced with a sandwich. A little girl hid in a restroom to avoid getting one. Many of the sandwiches end up untouched or tossed whole in the garbage. Sometimes kids pound them to pieces.
"I think it's an infamous cheese sandwich," said Frank Luna, whose son, Christopher, just finished the sixth grade.
A year ago, he said, a cafeteria worker took away Christopher's pizza and forced him in front of his friends to pick up a sandwich instead. A similar incident occurred when Christopher was in the third grade. "The kid was humiliated," said his father, who added that he did not realize he owed money, $7.50.
In Chula Vista, the largest elementary school district in the state, administrators said they had to control the ballooning debt before it forced them to make cuts in such areas as classroom equipment and books.
"When we did nothing, there was no incentive to pay," said Dennis Doyle, assistant superintendent of the district, which serves about 18,000 meals daily, including at most 400 alternate meals.
Most schools across the country have introduced alternate meals, said Erik Peterson, a spokesman for the School Nutrition Assn., an Alexandria, Va.-based organization for school nutrition professionals.
Orange County's Capistrano Unified School District serves crackers with peanut butter or cheese. The Los Angeles Unified School District gives children half a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches are a common alternate meal, but not a very effective one.
"It seemed to be one of the children's very favorite meals, so that wasn't productive," said Beth Taylor, nutrition director for the Johnston County School District in North Carolina, where such sandwiches were tried. Taylor said switching to vegetable and fruit trays changed everything. Among last week's menu items for students with lunch balances: crunchy cole slaw, fried squash and steamed cabbage. "The outstanding debt has been reduced to nothing," she said.
School districts have long struggled with parents' failure to keep up with lunch payments. The problem is worse in wealthier areas, where most children do not receive free or reduced-price lunches. In Chula Vista, 61% of children pay full price for their lunches.
Districts stress that the alternate meals are a last resort.
They send letters to parents. They hire collection agencies. Some place stickers on children's hands or put rubber bands on their wrists as reminders, said Peterson.
But alternate meals get the best results.
An effective alternate meal has to do two things: meet federal nutritional standards and flunk child taste tests. The cheese sandwich, typically served on untoasted whole wheat bread, apparently qualifies as one perfectly healthy stinker of a meal.
At lunch on a recent day at Chula Vista's Hilltop Elementary School, one boy who'd been handed a cheese sandwich pulled out the slice of American cheese and ate only the bread. A fourth-grade boy didn't even unwrap his sandwich. "I don't like it," he said. "I want pizza."
The sandwiches' low appeal is one thing. The stigma attached to them is worse, parents say.
One Chula Vista third-grader, whose mother requested that the girl not be identified, said students sometimes ostracize the cheese sandwich kids, switching tables and talking behind their backs. "Some kids say they're not the kind of kids you want to hang out with," she said.
Another girl said the cheese sandwich is "for people who don't have money."
Rosemarie Gonzalez said her daughter, a first-grader, was so troubled when she got the cheese sandwich that for three weeks she had to be reassured that her lunch account was current. Another panicky child broke into her piggy bank just in case her parents needed money.
Raegan Edwards, the mother of the third-grade girl, said parents don't always realize they've fallen behind, and the district doesn't let them know until it's too late. The alternate meal kicks in quickly, when a child's tab exceeds $5.