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.