Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No more free lunches

The story below made my blood boil this morning. (The comments almost made my head explode, I can't begin to address the ignorance of the commenters and I won't include their comments because you can follow the story link and read them for yourself.) I understand that school districts are facing financial difficulties. Property values are down, so property taxes are down. Because most school districts are financed through property taxes, they're not getting the same amount of tax dollars. Of course, when schools don't have enough money, they must make cuts and that often means the quality suffers. When school quality suffers, people don't want to move into a neighborhood, depressing property values even more. It's a horrible cycle.

I also understand that schools can't simply be in the business of giving everyone free lunches all the time without reimbursement from somewhere. Sure there is the National School Lunch Program, but to get your child qualified for free or reduced lunches is incredibly difficult. In my own school district, a family of 4 cannot have an income of more than $755 per week. That's for a family of 4. That's not much money, especially in the Chicago area. Even if you do meet the income requirement, there is an application process. And you may not get an instant answer.

Dave and I were on the free lunch program for a year or so in junior high. I remember being worried that everyone knew. Every month, I had to go to the principal's office and ask for a new free lunch card that I used in the cafeteria. I dreaded those trips. They were humiliating. I worried that other kids in the office for other reasons would hear me ask for my free lunch card. But at least I was never singled out with cheese sandwiches. I always got to eat what my friends were eating. I felt ashamed and stressed about the situation as it was, but being further singled out would have put me over the edge. I've never forgotten those difficult times in my life and part of me is still ashamed. Heck, I can feel my anxiety rise now as I worry about what my friends who don't know about this will think when they read my blog.

It's never the fault of a child that he or she doesn't have lunch money repeatedly. Sure, every kid forgets his or her lunch money once in awhile, but the article below isn't talking about those kids. It's talking about kids who don't have the money because their parents don't pay the bill. I may be going out on a limb here, but their parents aren't paying because they don't have the money either.

There must be a better solution to the problem of parents not paying the school lunch tab than cheese sandwiches and humiliating children. When I was a member of the Arlington Heights Junior Woman's Club, I chaired a garage sale fundraiser we did and got to choose the charitable recipient. I spoke to the local high school district and learned that they had a number of kids in each school who weren't quite "poor enough" to qualify for the free lunch program, but couldn't afford lunches or who throughout the year had other financial emergencies and needed a little help with the cost of books or going on a field trip. I successfully lobbied our club to give the money we raised (approximately $1600) to the school district to help these kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks.

I'd encourage school districts to reach out to area churches, Lions Clubs, Rotary, Women's Clubs, etc. for some help in this area. There is simply no reason for a child to be additionally punished for being poor. Isn't just knowing your parents don't have any money punishment enough?

No more free lunches: Schools get tough on deadbeats
Associated Press, Daily Herald, February 25, 2009

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A cold cheese sandwich, fruit and a milk carton might not seem like much of a meal -- but that's what's on the menu for students in New Mexico's largest school district without their lunch money.

Faced with mounting unpaid lunch charges in the economic downturn, Albuquerque Public Schools last month instituted a "cheese sandwich policy," serving the alternative meals to children whose parents fail to pick up their lunch tab.

Such policies have become a necessity for schools seeking to keep budgets in the black while ensuring children don't go hungry. School districts including those in Chula Vista, Calif., Hillsborough County, Fla., and Lynnwood, Wash., have also taken to serving cheese sandwiches to lunch debtors.

Critics argue the cold meals are a form of punishment for children whose parents can't afford to pay.

"We've heard stories from moms coming in saying their child was pulled out of the lunch line and given a cheese sandwich," said Nancy Pope, director of the New Mexico Collaborative to End Hunger. "One woman said her daughter never wants to go back to school."

Some Albuquerque parents have tearfully pleaded with school board members to stop singling out their children because they're poor, while others have flooded talk radio shows thanking the district for imposing a policy that commands parental responsibility.

Second-grader Danessa Vigil said she will never eat sliced cheese again. She had to eat cheese sandwiches because her mother couldn't afford to give her lunch money while her application for free lunch was being processed.

"Every time I eat it, it makes me feel like I want to throw up," the 7-year-old said.

Her mother, Darlene Vigil, said there are days she can't spare lunch money for her two daughters.

"Some parents don't have even $1 sometimes," the 27-year-old single mother said. "If they do, it's for something else, like milk at home. There are some families that just don't have it and that's the reason they're not paying."

The School Nutrition Association recently surveyed nutrition directors from 38 states and found more than half of school districts have seen an increase in the number of students charging meals, while 79 percent saw an increase in the number of free lunches served over the last year.

In New Mexico, nearly 204,000 low-income students -- about three-fifths of public school students -- received free or reduced-price lunches at the beginning of the school year, according to the state Public Education Department.

"What you are seeing is families struggling and having a really hard time, and school districts are struggling as well," said Crystal FitzSimons of the national Food Research and Action Center.

In Albuquerque, unpaid lunch charges hovered around $55,000 in 2006. That jumped to $130,000 at the end of the 2007-08 school year. It was $140,000 through the first five months of this school year.

Charges were on pace to reach $300,000 by the end of the year. Mary Swift, director of Albuquerque's food and nutrition services, said her department had no way to absorb that debt as it had in the past.

"We can't use any federal lunch program money to pay what they call bad debt. It has to come out of the general budget and of course that takes it from some other department," Swift said.

With the new policy, the school district has collected just over $50,000 from parents since the beginning of the year. It also identified 2,000 students eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches, and more children in the lunch program means more federal dollars for the district.

School officials said the policy was under consideration for some time and parents were notified last fall. Families with unpaid charges are reminded with an automated phone call each night and notes are sent home with children once a week.

Swift added that the cheese sandwiches -- about 80 of the 46,000 meals the district serves daily -- can be considered a "courtesy meal," rather than an alternate meal.

Some districts, she noted, don't allow children without money to eat anything.

Albuquerque Public Schools "has historically gone above and beyond as far as treating children with dignity and respect and trying to do what's best with for the child and I think this is just another example," Swift said.


  1. Amen. I agree LMS.

    Boxer was telling me that in Waukegan, families have to pay $50 for each kid to get them registered to attend school. It took me aback. I immediately wondered how many families just don't send their kids to school because they don't have $50. And that is just to get them registered - nothing else.

    It makes me angry.

    Someone once asked me why I vote Democrat. And it comes down to crap like this. I believe that my government is there to do certain things. And taking care of the weak and vulnerable is right up there at the top of my list. Basic shelter, access to decent food and water and health care, and basic education are all things I think every single person has a right to have. And if my taxes go up slightly to make that happen, I am all for it. But when my government of the last 8 years has done nothing but help corporations pay in nothing for the social fabric and spent gazillions on killing innocent civilians in a foreign country - well, all I acn say is that I am glad that particular regime is now gone and I wish the new regime would stop trying to extend the welcoming hand to those asshats and get to work doing what government should be doing!

    Errrggggggg .............

  2. I agree with you completely GG! After last night's speech, I hopped on FB and saw this very conservative friend of mine had commented that she would not ever watch a speech of Barack's and I just thought "WTF??? I watched Chimpy's speeches even though he actually was reckless and dangerous and breaking all kinds of international laws. Obama is the president of EVERYONE and he is reaching out to you! That's more than Chimpy ever did!" Oh, this friend made me so angry.

    I looked at all those GOPers who sat on their hands last night and refused to clap for SCHIP (insurance for children, people!) and thought they should be ashamed of themselves.

    I just want to tell them all "Hey! WE WON so sit down and shut the f*** up! We will not be kowtowing to your warped sense of patriotism. Don't talk to us about values! All you do is TALK about values - we actually LIVE them. Christ talked about loving everyone even the lepers and prostitutes. Where's your compassion?"

    Jesus, I'm sick of some of them.

    Whatever you do, do not go read the comments on the Daily Herald (really, I'm not kidding). You will want to physically hurt all those ignorant folks.

  3. "Swift added that the cheese sandwiches -- about 80 of the 46,000 meals the district serves daily -- can be considered a "courtesy meal," rather than an alternate meal."

    A "courtesy meal"? What,the schools are like the airlines? Do the kids get complimentary earphones as well?
    Like it or not, for some of these kids, it's the only meal they're going to get that day. As you say, LMS, it's not the kid's fault their parents can't afford lunches. When I hear that these kids don't want to go to school because of this, it makes me sick.
    I want to know this: How much food is being thrown away by these school systems? If they want to tell me that they are using every scrap of food they order and that cheese sandwiches are the ONLY alternative, we could explore that line of inquiry.
    As my kid would say, "Oh, the dumbassedness."

  4. LMS. I TOTALLY AGREE with you on this one. That policy is a travesty. My mom grew up very poor and she still talks about one day when a teacher pointed out her worn shoes to the entire class. My mom was so horrified that about 65 years later, she's still talking about it. Those wounds do not heal, ever.

  5. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    GG, Bergie, and Ellen Beth thank you so much!

    This was really difficult for me to write about. Like your mom Ellen Beth, I still remember that time in my life all too vividly. It never ever goes away. After seeing the comments on the Daily Herald, I was worried about posting this on my blog and what comments would appear (if any). Truthfully, no comments would have been worse than bad comments.

    But the three of you showed me so much love and compassion in your comments, I simply can't thank you enough. What makes it especially hard sometimes, I think, is that I grew up where I live now in the NW Suburbs of Chicago, in an area where people assume everyone is middle to upper-middle class and that poverty doesn't exist. And when poverty does exist it's only because adults were lazy or stupid or had some other fatal flaw and that they can't possibly be good parents.

    I can say that no one I've ever known who was poor was lazy or stupid (well, okay, that's not entirely true, but mostly it is). My mom is certainly neither. We just had some bad things happen in our family, but we overcame it. Personally, I'm grateful I learned the lessons about not having money when I was young. It makes me worry less about my own place in this whole economic mess we're in now.

  6. LMS -- Did you know your own Arlington Heights School District does the same thing? Students have their lunch account from which the fees for their lunches are drawn against. When the lunch account goes into the red, the student is given their hot lunch and a note home indicating a balance due on the account. The student is allowed a finite number (like 1 or 2)of hot lunch meals while their account has a nagative balance. After that the student is serve an alternative cold lunch instead of the hot lunch.

  7. Anonymous,

    Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I don't have kids so I'm not familiar with all the inner workings of the various school districts in Arlington Heights. I certainly was not saying Arlington Heights is a model for how things should be with their lunch program. In fact, the only thing I referenced about Arlington Heights was how to apply for the free/reduced lunches. Whether it's Albuquerque, New Mexico or Arlington Heights, Illinois, I believe that ALL children are deserving of a nutritionally balanced lunch and should not be punished for their parents being unable to afford school lunches.

  8. The anonymous commenter did not say whether the children being targeted are part of the national school lunch program or not. That program allows changing meals as a form of discipline, but even then requires all required meal components be served. The policy of using food for discipline could cause the school to be in violation of the weekly nutrition guidelines for the school lunch program as administered by the USDA. I would urge parents who cannot afford to pay for school lunches to apply for the program because if they are in it, when the school decides to punish their kids with nasty cheese sandwiches and segregate them for ostracism, there are rules they can point to to get the school district to back off. See the handbook for the program:


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