Noel Estes was incredulous when she saw the flyer from her child's Slidell-area elementary school on Facebook.
Surrounded by cartoon drawings of smiling children, it urged students to get their cafeteria bills paid up by Thursday so they could go to the gym for a "Cafeteria Zero-Balance Event" that promised hula-hoops, basketball and other games for those who didn't owe money.
"I thought, 'No, this can't be right, they can't do that,' " she said. And even though the deadline was just two days away, Estes immediately set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for overdue balances at Whispering Forest Elementary School "to avoid kids getting their feelings hurt."
Estes hit her goal within a few hours, but the social media buzz touched off by the flyer went beyond contributions.
Randy Kakumei, who is one of the organizers of STP Helps/Helping Hands St. Tammany, posted about the flyer on that group's page, saying he planned to contact the parish School Board. Others agreed, and apparently they followed through.
On Friday, Angela Daviston, a spokeswoman for St. Tammany Parish Schools, said that the central office had asked all schools to cancel any events scheduled with the intention of collecting unpaid balances "to give us a chance to evaluate feedback and clarify the guidelines with our principals at an already scheduled meeting next week."
She said that decision was made after it was "brought to our attention" that such events had been scheduled before the discussion took place.
Whispering Forest was not the only school trying to use incentives to get bills paid. A flyer from Covington Elementary said that children would be allowed to picnic on the playground during December if they had zero balances in their lunch accounts and before- and after-care accounts.
"Please be aware, those that cannot participate are not being punished. They will eat their lunch in the cafeteria as usual," that flyer said.
Parents who are critical of the approach say that exclusion does seem like punishment to young children who have no control over whether their bills are paid.
"Kids can't be expected to be accountable for their parents," Kakumei said. Singling out kids whose parents can't or won't pay their bills can lead to bullying, he said. And even if they are not bullied, just having attention brought to them for financial issues is upsetting to children.
"Since when does a 9-year-old, a third-grader, have anything to do with money?" he asked.
Kakumei also scoffed at the idea that those who are in arrears are just choosing not to pay or being irresponsible. On his Facebook post, he said his father was injured when he was in elementary school, and as a result he couldn't afford lunch money.
Estes echoed those sentiments, saying that families can be confronted with job loss, illness or even car trouble that can affect their ability to pay.
A sentence at the end of the Covington Elementary School flyer advised parents with a financial hardship to call the cafeteria manager.
In an emailed statement, Daviston said that the district offers anyone with difficulty paying their fees a chance to apply for a free or reduced-price lunch or for help in paying off their balance.
"If a parent or guardian is experiencing a hardship or struggling to keep up with their child's meal account, we encourage then to reach out to their school for help," she said, adding that no student is ever denied a meal.
Daviston said she could not immediately answer questions about how large the unpaid balance is for the school system.
"We are gathering feedback from parents and school administrators to determine guidelines of how to best move forward with collecting meal balances while continuing to meet the needs of all of our students, families and schools," she said.
She said the school system would work with organizers of the fundraising effort to decide how to handle the money that has been collected.
Estes raised $1,450 of her $1,300 goal, and another parent set up a similar account for Woodlake Elementary in Mandeville on youcaring.com that also exceeded its goal. That parent, Buffie LaRocca, said no formal events for children with paid-up accounts were scheduled at that school, where her son is a student, but she wanted to be proactive to make sure they would not be.
She said she plans to give any money raised above the amount needed at Woodlake to Mandeville Elementary.
Many communities pay off balances as a holiday gesture "without lunch-shaming," she said.
Kakumei, whose group was formed three years ago to help people in need, said he was overjoyed by the quick and generous response to the requests for help.
He and Estes both said they hope to see the school system come up with a better way to address the problem of unpaid lunch bills.
"I'm very glad we got their attention," Estes said....Read more