School spending might be frozen but that doesn’t mean that Ridgefield students are suffering in the cafeteria.

Delinquent meal accounts can wind up costing the district as much as $25,000 per year, Superintendent Karen Baldwin revealed to the Board of Education before it approved a new policy for students whose meal accounts run flat at its meeting Monday night.

Will the change tighten things up?

On the contrary: The board is making it easier for students to eat lunch, even if they don’t have the funds.

But why? To avoid the humiliation that comes with eating the district’s “alternative meal” — a cheese sandwich and a piece of fruit.

“[The new policy] allows students to continue to charge a meal when the account has a negative balance rather than be served an alternative meal,” said Baldwin, noting that students would not be allowed to charge snacks or “à la carte” items.

“The alternative meal experience can be embarrassing and humiliating for students, and we want to avoid placing children in those positions.”

While the board seemed fine with letting students charge meal items rather than face an alternative lunch, the superintendent did want to highlight the cost — a small fraction of the district’s $93.5-million budget, but still an expenditure for schools that were placed under a spending freeze last month.

Baldwin said she favored the change, and pointed out that it also directs families toward applications for free or reduced-price meals that are available from the town’s Department of Social Services, and on the school district’s website.

“We go to great lengths to engage with the families with high negative balances, and we try to steer them toward community resources,” Baldwin told the board.

The debate

While many school districts simply provide an alternative lunch, opponents say it unfairly singles out students who often have no control over whether a parent remembers to reload their lunch account.

At the board’s meeting Monday night, Chairwoman Fran Walton said there wasn’t a district-wide policy on meal charging before and that setting one for the district would ensure that students wouldn’t be embarrassed by an alternative lunch.

“No 8-year-old has control over their family’s finances,” Walton said.

“You don’t want some little child getting up there with a tray and finding out that they have to have some items removed,” she said to the board. “That would just be unconscionable.”

Collecting

The question of how to collect on negative balances seemed to vex the board.

Walton took particular issue with the public school regulations that would allow the district to hold a graduating student’s diploma until the the amount was paid back.

Baldwin later clarified that there “has not been a circumstance where a child did not graduate due to a negative school lunch balance.”

Instead, there would be some activities students wouldn’t be allowed to participate in until they had settled their account.

“There are lots of student activities that you might not be able to participate in,” board member Doug Silver said at the meeting.

“You can’t buy tickets to the school dances if you have fees at the library,” Walton said.

She also clarified that it would be the school business office — not school principals — that would be responsible for chasing down delinquent lunch balances.

Walton said that would allow principals to foster relationships with parents without a looming threat over late payments.

Other board members said their biggest concern was that students get the food they need, and that the policy doesn’t single out students with negative accounts.

“There’s nothing worse than people not being able to get their lunch,” said Walton.