With the ringing of the school bell in districts around the East Valley next week comes another tradition: the school lunch.
In the Mesa Unified School District alone, about 67,700 meals will be served daily.
If a student forgets lunch - or lunch money - the district puts its Lunch Baskets program into play, said Loretta Zullo, district director of food and nutrition.
When a student's lunch account gets low, a cafeteria worker may stamp a student's hand and give him or her a yellow notice to take home, Zullo said. Many districts use hand stamping to remind parents to send in money.
When the account gets to zero in Mesa, a red notice is given.
"But we still feed them," Zullo said. "We give them a (peanut butter and jelly sandwich). They can have milk and go to the fruit and salad bar."
That meal is charged to the student's account for five days, with a reminder sent home. Cafeteria managers also make an effort to reach a parent or guardian to resolve the issue.
Then, if no money is received, the meal turns into a snack, with protein - such as cheese or peanut butter - and crackers.
East Valley districts differ slightly in how they handle lunch accounts, although hand-stamping and peanut butter or cheese sandwiches for delinquent accounts are common.
After 15 years of stamping kids' hands, the Gilbert Unified School District is trying something new. Beginning in September, an automated phone system will call parents and alert them when their child is low on lunch money, said Debbie McCarron, Gilbert's food service director.
"We felt this is a lot better than stamping the hand," McCarron said. "The call will be made probably three days before the lunch money is gone."
When Gilbert elementary school students run out of money, they can get up to two free lunches. A school fund will help pay for any lunches afterward, where students get a cheese sandwich, fruit and milk, McCarron said.
"It's rare that after two times we have to track them (the parents) down," she said.
Gilbert students at the high school and junior high level who don't have money don't get a lunch. McCarron said they "figure they're old enough and should be responsible enough."
The Gilbert district serves between 30,000 to 35,000 lunches a day.
The Queen Creek Unified School District has a no-charge policy, said Carol Weekly, the food service director.
"We keep track of them, but we don't bill the family," said Weekly. One month last year Desert Mountain Elementary School gave out 164 free lunches. "It's hard to collect."About three days before elementary students run out of money, they get a hand stamp. Queen Creek families can log onto ezschoolpay.com to deposit money or check balances.
Last year, the Queen Creek district served an average of 2,585 lunches a day, Weekly said.
The Higley Unified School District will begin stamping a student's hand this year when a lunch account reaches $6. When the student's account is negative, he or she receives a full meal for up to three days. Then, if there is still no money, the child gets a cheese sandwich and a milk until the account is paid up.
High school students will be reminded when their accounts reach $5. When the balance is zero, they will not receive a meal, according to the new policy.
Higley uses www.mymealtime.com. Parents can check accounts and deposit money. Higley's current negative balance is $3,738.89.
School districts can also submit an application for a free or reduced lunch on behalf of the student, said Wes Delbridge, food and nutrition supervisor at the Chandler Unified School District.
Last year, the district of more than 37,000 children had just $979 in unpaid meals.
Like Gilbert, the Chandler school district allows parents to track lunch funds through a Web site, mylunchmoney.com. Letters go home when a balance gets below $4, Delbridge said. Some schools may stamp a child's hand, "but in the best scenario the child doesn't know what the stamp means."
Chandler's policy is similar to other districts in trying to resolve the issue with families.
"We will never deny a child food," Delbridge said.