Pondering School Lunches

We all remember school lunch.  If you had it as a child, you probably remember it with distaste; I know I do.  I went to school in the 80s when school lunches had a definite institutional feel, and much of it went uneaten.  Fortunately for our kids, there’s a movement to change that.  I was lucky to work for a school district who began a program of contacting local farmers and gathering cheaper produce, and hiring an amazing chef to turn that into delicious, healthy meals that the kids loved.  One day a local farmer donated bushels of fresh peaches, and the joy on the children’s faces when they bit into them was amazing.  One of the schools I worked for in that district also saw that the children on the free breakfast program were too embarrassed to eat it.  (Free breakfast is given to children who are in higher poverty than those with free lunch.)  The principal fixed that by making breakfast a “subject”–at the beginning of the day, all teachers and their classes would go to breakfast.  They’d eat together, talk, calm down and get ready for the day.  that year, the test scores soared.  America is gradually learning what Japan has known all along–children fed with healthy food produce better academic results.   It seems so simple!

It’s not simple, however.  Teachers and administrators want the best for their students, and that includes healthy, fresh food.  But with the severe underfunding of schools, some of whom can’t even afford paper, food like this is simply out of reach.  Teachers already absorb major costs for school supplies; they can’t pay for food as well.  It’s the parents’ responsibility to pay for their students’ lunches.  However, many simply don’t.

Recently in Utah, a school made the egregious error of throwing away students’ lunches who had negative balances.  They allowed the children to get the lunches, then scanned hem, and if they didn’t have the money, threw the food away and gave them an orange and milk.  ( http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/elementary-school-takes-away-students–lunches-due-outstanding-balances-on-accounts-174726995.html )  It was very poorly handled all around.  It humiliated students for the failings of their parents; children should not be punished for something that they cannot possibly have control over.  Moreover, why in the world would you serve food, only to throw it away rather than nourish the child?  It’s one thing to check the child’s balance ahead of time and give them something else, but to serve food that then no other child can eat, and throw it away?  What a waste!  The parents were not given enough warning before this occurred; there should have been a grace period of about a week.  It was a disaster and they deserved the admonishment they received.

I’m seeing a lot of blame laid at the teachers feet, yet in some of the articles it says some teachers ran up to pay for their own students’ lunches.  Also, many people don’t understand that schools and cafeterias often operate independently of each other, sometimes for completely different companies.  I don’t know the set-up in the school in Utah, but I have worked in schools were the cafeteria workers were contractors, so throwing the blame at teachers, while convenient, is unfair.

However, I understand the reasoning behind the plan in the first place, however poorly executed it was.  I know cafeteria workers who had to absorb the costs of students’ negative balances.  Why should they, who barely make enough to feed themselves, be forced to pay for students’ food?  I’ve seen teachers pay for it, too, and I’ve bought a few myself when I didn’t want my student to get peanut butter crackers for lunch.  (Fortunately in recent years, my district began giving out simple sandwiches and bananas to those students with empty accounts, and they checked the child’s account before giving them the food!)  There needs to be some way to hold the parents accountable for their accounts that doesn’t humiliate their child.

I admit I don’t know what that is.  In some places, withholding a report card might work, but I tried that for library funds and ended up with a stack of unclaimed report cards at the end of the year.  One of my students constantly had no money in her account; I sent home letters, wrote notes in her planner, made phone calls, sent emails.  Her mother avoided coming to school, so I couldn’t talk to her in person.  She screened my calls and those of the cafeteria workers.  The lunch lady yelled at me daily about this child’s account, but I had done everything I could too.  It made tensions run high.  I felt terrible for the little girl, who was caught in the middle and relegated to cheese sandwiches and bananas daily, for weeks at a time. There simply wasn’t money to just give the girl lunches; the cafeteria and school budgets are separate.  I certainly couldn’t afford to feed her all year, since I had my own kids to feed.  I can see why schools who have many of these students would start resorting to drastic measures.

There’s no easy solution.  It would take more of the dreaded school funding, which people apparently believe we secretly have and just aren’t using.  Funds could be reallocated from other budgets, but I don’t know from where.  (Don’t give me the admin has too much money speech.  Sometimes that’s true, but I worked in a district with one of the lowest number and cost of administrators in the state and we still didn’t have enough money for paper!) One option would be to follow the lead of my old school district and try to make deal with local producers to acquire cheaper ingredients, which would be better for the community as a whole.  As for finding that elusive money from forgetful or evasive parents…I don’t know the solution to that one.  I’ve never found any one thing that all the parents cared about enough to withhold it.  You would be shocked at the sheer number of people who simply don’t care about what their child does at school, which only compounds the problem. Hiring someone to chase down funds only compounds the budget issue.  We need to work to find a solution that holds parents accountable and gives schools the tools they need to positively solve the problem.

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2 responses to “Pondering School Lunches

  1. State funded, tax payer payed lunches for all kids. Centralized funds for that is cheaper than various other methods. This is one thing I think most people would pay taxes for. Raised in Sweden, were there have been free school lunches for 60 years or so, this is a bit surreal. There were always one warm meal, one vegetarian option and *always* milk, juice, crisp bread sandwiches and cereal.

    • I agree; this is the way they did it in Japan, too. I don’t think it’s ever happened in the US though. I would love to see a ballot initiative that was school lunches only, rather than a generic bond issue, and see if the voters would pass it.

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