Monday, September 2, 2013

No lunch money? Let's throw your lunch in the trash!

A friend of mine got the following letter from her school district this weekend:

To sum it up:

If you let the balance on your kid's school lunch account fall below $5.00, they will send you a notice. If you don't put more money in the account before the balance then falls to $0, when your kids get to the front of the lunch line, their lunch will be taken away, they will not be given the "humanitarian meal" option instead and a perfectly good hot lunch will be thrown in the garbage.

Let's set aside the whole issue of calling a peanut butter and jelly sandwich a "humanitarian meal" for now and examine exactly that this policy is supposed to accomplish.

<puts thinking cap on>
<thinks really hard>
<thinks harder>

I honestly have no idea.

I am guessing that the idea is that the kid will be so humiliated by the experience of having their lunch taken away that they will go home and cry to their parents who will then feel so bad that they will promptly pay up on their school lunch account that very next day.

Except whomever thinks that obviously hasn't got elementary-aged kids. Or maybe their kids are just more disciplined, focused and way less scatter-brained than mine were at that age.

The elementary school kids I've known mostly weren't organized enough to remember hours later to tell their parents that they didn't get a lunch that day. That's assuming they had a home life where they felt like they could say something and/or had a personality where they felt like they could say something.

And this, of course, assumes that the parent is perfectly able to pay up that very next day (or has food in the fridge to send Jr. to school with a packed lunch until some money does show up).

So while I can't tell what this policy will accomplish, I can tell you what it will it not:

-It will not save money (the meal will be thrown out and so will have to be paid for by the district anyway)

-It will not put food in the belly of a hungry child who then has to go back to their classroom and try to learn on an empty stomach.

-It will not 'teach them a lesson' because the person being punished is a kid and the kid didn't do anything wrong.

What we have is a policy that reminds me of divorcing parents using their kids to score points off each other. Except in this case it's just the school district trying to score points off parents at a time when they need to be making allies of the parents.

There are a few other things that really push my buttons about this policy. 

A big one is that I know from personal experience that the schools are bad about letting you know what the balance is on your account and if you are getting low. They say they'll send a notice when your account has $5 or less in it. But chances are good that by the time you get the notice, your kid's account will already be at $0 or perilously close. And then they have all sorts of rules for when and how you can pay them. (It's not like you can write a check at the start of the year for the entire amount. I know because I've tried.) Which means it might take a few days to get the money in there. 

That means even the most responsible parent is now at risk of having their kid(s) going hungry due to a combination of clerical mishaps and red tape by the school.

Another issue that I have is that our attitudes towards food start forming very early on. I still have traumatic memories about school food and the free lunch program from when I was in Elementary School.

Can you imagine being the kid of a parent who can't or won't keep your school lunch account topped off and, every time you get in line for lunch, you have no idea if you are going to get to keep your lunch when you get to the front of the line or not? 

I can just imagine what kind of mental scars around food and eating that could cause, particularly in a sensitive child.

I know schools feel helpless about a lot of things and have their backs to the walls with little money and lots of pressure to improve test scores and graduation rates. But I can't understand the thinking that went into this one. Again, it's not saving a dime. Again, it's not punishing the people who are at fault -- the ones not paying their bills. 

We live in a suburb with good schools and the value system is solidly middle-class. However, the Mac Family deliberately chose to live in a part of town that is economically diverse. As a result, I wouldn't be surprised if our neighborhood school didn't have its issues with parents whose kids came school with no lunch and no lunch money.

But sending out such a letter as this? It wouldn't have been stood for. The people who think that like would be shut right down.

When MacBoy's account went to zero, and between his disorganization and my dislike of writing checks, it did occasionally do that, the lunch lady's floated him or gave him the "humanitarian" meal. And it sure wasn't called that either. (Not to mention, it didn't have PEANUTS in it.)

They knew we'd be good for it eventually and eventually he'd get around to telling us we needed to put more money into the account or I'd nag him about it -- it's been a while, you sure you don't need more lunch money? and it would all get straightened out.

We also have the regular subsidized lunch plan that all the schools have. So between that and most of the families being able to afford to feed their kids, and families sending in extra food because either that's their culture (to feed everybody) or their kids was friends with another kid whose parents didn't send him with enough, and people just generally watching out for each other, people got fed.

That's the American Way, in my opinion. We take care of our own.

Our school district even has a free breakfast program that's for everyone. If you come to school at a certain hour, they are serving breakfast and you can have some, no questions asked, no forms to fill out, no income qualifications to meet. It's just there for anyone who needs or simply just wants it 

Because we aren't going to let any kid go hungry at school.

And even if some of the people are voting for this program because they want their kid to go to a school with good test scores (the kids' elementary school is a California Distinguished School and once was ranked #2 in the state on some dumb standardized test I don't believe in), we still have programs like that. Because we aren't going to let any kid go hungry at school. We just aren't.

Willingboro Board of Education needs to take a lesson from the Fremont Unified School District, if you ask me.

I am hopeful that this policy at Willingboro School District won't stand. I figure it won't take more than one or two parents like me -- middle class and mouthy -- having their kids get their lunch dumped in the trash because the school secretary sent their "low balance" letters to the wrong address or late or not at all, before they quietly change the policy.

However, that might take a while. So some of us would like to help Willingboro along to see the error of their ways. With that in mind, another friend has started a petition on and I'd like to encourage everyone to sign it:

Another part of why I want to put some pressure on them is that I've heard they aren't the only school district to do this. I'd like to see this kind of illogical thinking get nipped in the bud before it becomes some kind of a nation-wide trend.

Because no kid should have to go hungry at school. Especially not when their perfectly good lunch is being thrown in the trash to makes some sort of Dickensonian point.
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