School district making changes after 9-year-old was denied lunch on his birthday

(CNN) — A boy from Ohio had the “worst birthday ever” after his school lunch was taken away because of an unpaid balance on his account.

Jefferson Sharpnack told his grandmother, Diane Bailey, that he was denied his lunch tray when he went to check out. Instead of getting the cheesy breadsticks he had picked out, he was given a piece of cheese and bread by the lunch staff at Green Primary School in Uniontown, Ohio.

It all happened on his ninth birthday, in front of other students in the lunch line, because of a $9 debt, according to Bailey.

Green Local Schools confirmed to CNN the incident occurred and that Jefferson received an alternative lunch that is given to students with deficit accounts. The lunch consisted of a cheese sandwich, side item and milk.

Bailey told CNN affiliate WEWS that Jefferson and his siblings recently moved in with her and that she was waiting for paperwork to be processed so they could be enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. She said she had received a notice about the unpaid balance, called the school and thought Jefferson was in good standing.

“In my mind, he didn’t owe anything,” Bailey said. “I owed the money, the parents, the school district.”

Jefferson’s story has been shared on social media and through local news reports, prompting school officials to reevaluate their policies. Monday, the superintendent of Green Local Schools sent a notice to parents that all students will now receive standard lunch regardless of their account balance.

“We are sensitive to the financial hardship families incur and challenges presented due to the cost of school breakfast and lunches,” Jeff Miller said in the letter.

“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.”

Bailey told CNN affiliate WJW that this was a “perfect solution” and she thanked the school district for responding so quickly.

Three-fourths of school districts reported having unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to the School Nutrition Association. In 2017, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) mandated schools develop plans for students who have deficit accounts.

The USDA strongly discourages “lunch shaming,” such as denying children meals, when meal charges are not paid.

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