There have been numerous news reports in recent weeks of school cafeteria staff snatching meals away from children whose lunch accounts were overdrawn. In Utah, Florida, and New Jersey, elementary school students have been humiliated in front of their friends and classmates when their hot lunch was literally taken out of their hands and dumped into the trash.

As schools across the country grapple with rising cafeteria debt, getting tough with kids may appear to be justified. But when meals already served are seized and dumped, the cafeteria must absorb not only the cost of the discarded hot meal, but also the cost of the stingier "meal of shame" - like a cheese sandwich - provided in its place. While cafeterias can't afford to underwrite unlimited lunches for students who don't qualify for government paid meals, is shaming children in front of their peers really the best way to encourage families to clear their cafeteria debt?

Some may wonder why school lunchrooms bother trying collect from parents at all. Public school is supposed to be free - shouldn't meals be provided free for everyone too, just like textbooks, crayons, and even iPads? Unfortunately, the school meal program remains underfunded by Congress, current government payment rates for meals served free to low income students are not high enough for most districts to feed everyone for free, and cafeterias need to collect every dollar they can just to stay afloat.

Meal costs and prices both increase

The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA) has brought more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to school cafeterias. But these nutritious upgrades come at a steep cost, and the accompanying 6 cents per lunch increase in government payment is not nearly enough to cover their expense. Even when students do pay for their lunches (at prices that vary by school but are typically a couple of dollars), their payment may not cover the full cost of food, labor to serve it, and overhead of running a cafeteria.

Another requirement of the HHFKA, called the Paid Meal Equity provision, requires schools to raise the price they charge for meals gradually over time, until it is equivalent to the amount of money the government pays for a free lunch. That's because the money from the government is only intended to cover costs for low income students; when more affluent students pay less than the government does for a lunch, the government payment ends up subsidizing the cost of the more affluent child's meal. Government payment this year is about $3 for a free lunch, but some districts, like LAUSD, have been charging paying students as little as $1.50 for the same meal.

Families and cafeterias both in a bind

The increase in the price charged for a school lunch has left some families in a bind. Their income is too high to qualify for government paid meals (currently capped at $43,568 for a family of 4), but too low to allow them to easily absorb a price increase for their children's school lunches. Some school districts, especially in high cost of living areas like San Francisco, allow students who show up in the lunch line not qualified for government paid meals, but with no money in their lunch account, to have the meal anyway. Later, efforts are made to collect payment from the family.

But schools are under no obligation to do this, and cafeterias are expected to break even. As a result, when students run up debt, cafeteria managers may feel they have to do something to collect. Sometimes that something is taking a meal out of a child's hands. Since regulations state that once food is given to one child, it cannot be re-served to another, those confiscated meals go in the trash. In some schools this has happened to children as young as 5 or 6.

Isn't there a better way for cafeterias to collect the money they are rightfully owed, without stooping to shaming children? Of course there is.

Collecting debt without shaming kids

How about notifying families that the school will not issue a report card for any child owing money to the cafeteria until the parents come in and clear the debt, or set up a payment plan to start paying it down? That puts the consequence clearly on the adults, not on the child.

In middle and high school, the policy can be that no student with cafeteria debt is allowed to attend a school dance, or other optional but attractive school event, as the Jeannette City School District (PA) has done. That provides incentive for families to pay up without embarrassing students in front of their friends.

Schools can even withhold diplomas from graduating seniors until all cafeteria charges are paid. In Oregon, the law requires that diplomas be withheld from graduating seniors until all school debts are paid.

Mistakes happen

Apart from being despicable, taking food away from a hungry child is risky because there is so much potential for error on the part of the school. At least one parent in the highly publicized Utah incident said a cafeteria worker told her later that her child's account was not overdrawn, and the child's lunch had been confiscated due to a mistake.

Last spring, a high school student in Missouri had his lunch snatched away for alleged unpaid debt even though he was enrolled in the free lunch program; the school later apologized and blamed a "miscommunication".

Even when there is legitimate debt, sometimes it is miniscule. A 12 year old student in Texas had his school breakfast taken away in November because he owed 30 cents, while last spring in Massachusetts, dozens of middle school students were forced to throw out their lunches if they owed as little as 5 cents.

Ounce of prevention worth pound of cure

The best solution to the problem of collecting cafeteria debt is to help families avoid incurring it in the first place. But in some cases, including the Utah incident, schools have withheld hot lunches from students whose parents never realized that money was owed.

Sometimes parents are unaware that their child is making cafeteria purchases, and running up charges, until the school calls to ask for payment. Parents may have dutifully packed a daily lunchbox, only to learn too late that the child was buying unauthorized chocolate milk or snacks.

A Seattle father, who discovered his young son was doing just that, was told by nutrition department staff that it would be "impossible" to deactivate the child's cafeteria account to prevent further charges. Even when the account PIN number was changed, the father said "mysterious" charges still appeared. Schools need to make sure that students cannot charge food against their parents' wishes.

Ideally, families should be contacted as soon as a child charges their first purchase, so they can respond immediately. But some schools wait weeks, or months, before notifying parents that money is owed. In the aftermath of the Utah incident, new procedures put in place in Salt Lake City schools now include daily notification to parents of unpaid balances.

Collect free meal applications from all students

Another way to get cafeteria debt under control is to get a completed meal application form from every student. Some students qualify for free meals through "direct certification" without needing to fill out the form, because their family receives food stamps (now called SNAP). But for low income students whose families don't apply for SNAP benefits - either because of pride, concerns about their immigration status, or not knowing about the SNAP program - filling out the application form is the only way to get approved for free school meals.

Schools that allow students to amass cafeteria debt may inadvertently be feeding (and creating debt for) students who would get government paid meals if only they did fill out the form. Making the form available online has helped drive higher rates of return in San Francisco.

For a family worried about immigration status, schools could do a better job of engaging with community groups to assure immigrant families that meal application information is not shared with other government agencies.

School districts can run contests with prizes for every school that collects completed meal applications from 98% or more of their students.

Leadership must come from the top

It is nearly impossible for school nutrition directors to get meal applications back from 100% of students on their own; they need support at the school sites. But Principals, with so many other issues on their plates, may be reluctant to take on this added responsibility.

That's why emphasis on the importance of getting a meal form back from every student needs to come from the district Superintendent. The local Board of Education can make it district policy that every student must have on file a current meal application form.

It is even permissible for a school Principal to fill out a form on behalf of a student if the Principal has personal knowledge that the family is low income. "Students can become eligible if a school official completes the application on their behalf. This can happen at any point during the school year and is an important option in individual high need situations when the school’s communication with the student’s family is not successful," according to the Food Research and Action Center.

Kindergarten students incur most debt

One group of students notorious for incurring cafeteria debt, especially in the first month of the school year, is Kindergartners. That's because, while government paid free meals are available during the first weeks of a new school year to older students if they were eligible during the prior year, this is not the case for Kinders.

Kindergartners (as well as any students new to that school district) don't have a "prior year eligibility" because they were not enrolled in the prior year. Schools can't receive government payment for meals eaten by these new students until their meal applications are submitted, and that can take weeks, or months, especially if the family does not understand the urgency of the situation.

Even when a new student is eventually approved for free lunch, government payment is not available to cover meals eaten before the application was submitted, only those eaten after.

To prevent Kinders and other new students from running up large amounts of debt, schools should make an extra effort to reach out to new families. Lots of "new student" info goes home to families before school starts - immunization forms, school bus schedules, parent handbooks. Why not include a meal application and a simple-to-understand explanation of why it needs to be returned to school before the first day of class? Encouraging families to fill out the form online is even better, and a follow up phone call to confirm this has been done helps too.

School districts must recognize that when cafeterias run in the red, it drains money from other school needs, like paying for teachers and textbooks, so helping families avoid debt is every school employee's job, not just a nutrition department responsibility. Addressing cafeteria charges starts with keeping the parents informed, and getting every qualified student signed up for free lunch. But it should never, ever include food being snatched from the hands of children.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.