Erin Peterson went to the school Wednesday and paid $56 so all the students could have a regular lunch for a while. But that same day, the school's Parent Teacher Association collectively donated about $350 to cover the children for the remainder of the year, according to Kenton County School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kim Banta.
"Schools are usually leery about taking money for certain things," Banta said. "But if someone wanted to donate right now they could."
Peterson said she felt motivated to feed the children regular lunches because she could not imagine her son, who goes to Hinsdale Elementary, going hungry.
According to Kenton County School District policy, students with a negative account balance on their pre-paid lunch accounts are given alternative snacks, instead of a regular meal.
Parent Katie Kaiser said her daughter was forced to dump out a full tray of food and given saltine crackers and cheese last week during state testing because of a $1.15 debt in her lunch account. Kaiser says she deposited money in her daughter's online lunch account the night before, but the transaction wasn't posted by lunch time the next day.
Kaiser said when she picked her daughter up from school last week, the fourth grader walked out of the building in tears.
"My question was 'is that a fair policy?' Because these kids, they don't have the means to bring money in if the parents don't give it to them, " Kaiser said of the district where 39 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch.
But the Hinsdale cafeteria staff was following the Kenton County School District's meal charge policy. The county policy allows students to charge a regular meal to their account up to five times. After the fifth time, the policy states a student is given an "alternative snack."
Kenton County School Nutritionist Elizabeth Menke says the alternative snack is a choice of milk or orange juice and cheese. 9 On Your Side asked Menke if cheese was a nutritionally healthy meal for a student. She had no comment and referred back to the county policy.
Banta said they are authorized to give away only certain foods that the federal government provides the school for free. Banta says the district has apologized to parents for the isolated incidents where students received crackers for lunch.
"I would love to give away food, but we can't, so we have started programs to pay kids' charges down," said Banta, who added that some families have charges of up to $800.
Since it's the end of the school year, no more charges are being accepted at Kenton County schools. Any student with a negative lunch account balance, or without cash, is getting the alternative snack.
Kaiser ate lunch with her daughter at Hinsdale the next day. She says she witnessed multiple teachers and staff members paying for students who were forced to go to the back of the lunch line to get the alternative snack.
"It was an amazing show of character. That they came down and they stood by those kids who were already feeling bad, " said Kaiser. "To stand there and say, ‘Absolutely not, not on our watch, this isn't going to happen, when we became teachers our priority was to develop kids, and we don't know what this one thing could do to their development, but we're not going to stand by and let it be done.' I thought that was amazing."
Kaiser contacted the Kenton County Superintendent about the policy, who referred the mom to the county nutrition department. Kaiser says she was told the alternative snack was the county's way of collecting a debt.
"I think the county's response is probably indicative of a larger mindset that is really frightening right now in the public school system. That we've stopped seeing kids as individuals and as very influenceable little humans. Instead, they're a number, or they're a dollar sign," said Kaiser.
One teacher said an educator shouldn't be put in a situation where they have to do the right thing and purchase lunches. The teacher says for some students, school lunch is their only meal on a given day.