His new collared shirt buttoned, Jefferson searched his room for his bow tie.

He wanted to wear it on his birthday while he handed out the Twinkies he bought for his new classmates after enrolling in Green Primary School just days prior.

He couldn't find the bow tie, but bounded toward the bus as a happy, newly minted 9-year-old anyway.

When he returned at 4 p.m., his grandmother said, his mood had changed.

"Worst birthday ever," Diane Bailey recalled her grandson saying that afternoon on Sept. 3.

He explained a new school regulation meant he couldn't give the treats to his new friends. But it was what he said next that launched him and his school into the center of a national debate.

"They took my lunch," Jefferson said, his hands mimicking carrying a tray.

The "they" turned out to be a cafeteria worker who was following Green Local Schools district policy that students with outstanding lunchroom debt get an alternative lunch. In Jefferson's case, it wasn't until after he had already been given the hot lunch of cheesy breadsticks that the staff realized they should have given him the alternative — plain bread with slices of cheese. As he stood among his classmates at the front of the line, his lunch was swapped.

It wasn't the first time Bailey had heard of this happening. Jefferson's older brother, 13-year-old Isaac, said he had his lunch swapped at the front of the line at Green Middle School within the first week of school as well.

But Bailey said the look on Jefferson's face broke her heart, especially because it was his birthday. She called the school, but also told one of her nieces what happened. The niece posted about it on Facebook.

Within days, the family's story went international, with television appearances, phone calls from overseas, and birthday presents and cheesy breadsticks pouring in to the school and the family's Green home.

Bailey didn't care about any of that. She's just glad what happened to her boys will never happen to another child, at least in Green.

The suburban Summit County district changed its policy, and will not give alternative lunches to children with outstanding debt.

"This is not about profit. This is not about money, this is not even about a birthday gift," Bailey said. "This is about righting a wrong."

Green Assistant Superintendent Alana Niemiec confirmed the policy change.

"It's not going to happen again," she said.

Niemiec said the district became aware of the situation before it hit the media, and found a 30-year-old policy was behind it.

"As we became aware of this, we immediately recognized this is not a kid-friendly policy," she said. The employee was not disciplined for following it.

The intent behind the original policy was to force parents not to let their child's lunch debt build for weeks and months, Niemiec said. The electronic lunch payment system was supposed to lock out a child from accruing more debt once they hit $15. Jefferson and his brothers were also supposed to be enrolled in the federal free and reduced lunch program, but Bailey said she received the paperwork several days into school, just before Jefferson's birthday. She has since paid off the debt for all four of the grandchildren in her care, even though they qualify for the federal program, and put extra money on their accounts to make sure they would never go without lunch.

The district will have to find new ways to motivate parents, Niemiec said, and not put that burden on children. The leadership also is reviewing other policies to see how they may inadvertently affect students, she said.

 

Mounting debt

Green is not the only district that struggles with mounting lunch debt.

Nationally, schools that don't have high populations of low-income students who receive federally subsidized lunches often have deficits in their nutrition budgets. That compounds when students aren't paying.

The School Nutrition Association, a national professional association for nutrition workers, reported that 75% of districts that responded to a survey said they had unpaid student meal debt at the end of the 2017-18 school year.

Why that burden falls on families — and then to districts — in the first place, when the government promises a free education but not the meal to get them through the day, is a mystery to Niemiec.

"It's a huge issue within education," she said.

One-off donors nationally have from time to time paid off an entire school's debt. Niemiec said the school has received some donations since Jefferson's story went national. She did not immediately know the total debt students have accrued in Green schools.

The school also has received angry phone calls, Niemiec said.

Bailey said she can't understand why people would do that. She's been happy with the school's response since she called to complain about what happened to Jefferson.

"They handled it right," she said from her home, where she raised 10 children. "They admitted it, they came out here and apologized."

Bouncing back

Her biggest concern, outside of making sure no other child had their lunch taken away, was whether Jefferson would rebound. Kids are resilient, she noted. But it was his first week in a new school after moving to Ohio from Virginia to live with their grandmother while their father, who is in the Navy, is deployed to Europe.

By Thursday, Jefferson was bouncing around his grandmother's yard with his brother Isaac and the family dog, Charlie. He opened one of the birthday presents sent to the house, this one a set of Star Wars Legos from someone who heard his story in New Zealand.

He misses his life in Virginia — his friends, his Xbox and his stuffed Edgar Allan Poe black cat. But ask him for names of his new friends, and he has a lengthy list. When his school bus was involved in a small, injury-free accident Thursday, he read to the other students on the bus while they waited to leave.

The school's family support staff have come by the house several times, even bringing birthday cupcakes for Jefferson. Bailey said they wanted to make sure she and the boys have everything they need, which she appreciated. But she told them she only needed one thing from them.

"I said, 'I need you to give all my kids their lunch.'"

 

Contact reporter Jennifer Pignolet at jpignolet@thebeaconjournal.com, at 330-996-3216 or on Twitter @JenPignolet.