VERNON - A Vernon Elementary School cafeteria cashier resigned last week after being advised of a Washington County School District policy that requires staff to toss meals in the trash and offer "courtesy meals" - consisting of a cold cheese sandwich, milk, and an apple - to students unable to pay for food.

"It's lunch shaming, pure and simple," said Denise Whitehurst, who resigned after being advised of the policy. "Before the end of the school year came around, kids could charge up to $20, and parents would be notified of charges and the impending limit. We were told last week kids couldn't charge at all, not even 40 cents."

Whitehurst states lunch staff try to intercept children they knew will need a courtesy lunch, but the first-year employee was told if a student came to her checkout and could not pay, she was to throw away the hot food and replace it with the courtesy meal.

"What if that child is intolerant to dairy? What if school food is the only nutritious meals these children will receive all day? It's just unconscionable, and as a mother and grandmother, I just can't do it," she said.

Roughly 50 percent of students who attend Washington County schools participate in school meal programs, which are overseen through a contract with Chartwell School Dining Services and administered under the US Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. Both are federally assisted meal programs meant to provide nutritionally balanced lunches for children each school day. The school district sets meal prices and offers a sliding scale to students based on family income, as required by federal regulations.

Washington County School District Director of Federal Programs, Dr. Bobbi Dawson, says the policy was never meant to shame children, rather help support the cost of the program.

"Unfortunately, the National School Lunch Program doesn't come completely free to the district," said Dawson. "We have to pay for the food and our employees. We do take into consideration that elementary children are unable to take care of themselves, and that is why we allow the charge system during the school year."

"Also, we offer a variety of alert options to alert parents of the balance, and if anyone's financial situation changes at any time - even during the last few weeks of school - they can still apply to receive free or reduced lunches. We try to help families in every way we can."

Whitehurst acknowledges the need to cover cost - but objects to subjecting children to having trays thrown away - especially in front of other students.

"Because VES has a Pre-K program, children as young as four come through that lunch line," she said. "It's just not right to have a policy that says we have to take a hot meal away and replace it with a nutritiously inferior sandwich. We have to find a better way."

School districts began looking for those better ways a few years ago after a study by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service found that in the 2010-11 school year, 58 percent of schools surveyed incurred student meal debt. It also found that, in one year, 60 percent of schools with meal debt provided alternative meals to students, and 36 percent took an administrative action such as withholding grades.

The federal government stepped in and required schools participating in the federal meals programs to have written policies to inform parents of procedures regarding meal debt and clearly communicate those policies to parents and school staff.

The USDA hoped to place more responsibility on parents and allow schools to collect meal debt while avoiding embarrassing of students, with the mandate stating that policies "will not negatively impact the children involved, but instead focus on the adults responsible for providing funds for meal purchases.”

According to listed USDA standards, the Washington County School District is in compliance with those policy guidelines.

Whitehurst says regardless of meeting federal rules, another rule should be implemented - one she says is a rule of the heart.

"Not only is the policy a waste of food, but it damages the self esteem of children who have no control over their situation at home," she said. "When it come to children, we have to use our hearts. We have to do better."