Morris: The School Lunch
by Leo Morris
I can barely keep track of all the shaming going on these days. There is fat shaming. And slut shaming. And stay-at-home-mom shaming and LGBTQ shaming and even religion shaming.
And we have apparently become so judgmental that as soon as we feel properly chastised about one form of shaming, another one comes around.
It’s almost impossible for me to keep up, even when so many others seem aware.
There is a “national conversation,” says the Guardian (and who should know America better than a British newspaper?) over “school lunches as a locus of economic justice.”
Yes, it’s come to that. Lunch shaming.
I suppose I shouldn’t feel too out of it since the whole state of Indiana has been somewhat slow on the uptake over the issue.
It was just last month that Greenwood Community Schools ditched its lunch charging policy after a kindergarten girl had her hot food replaced with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because there wasn’t enough money in her lunch account. Her grandfather said she was sad and embarrassed by the incident, and the community outrage was swift.
But the “national backlash” against such lunch shaming has been building for years, hence the “national conversation” that seems always to have taken place after I left the room.
It’s difficult to gauge the prevalence of shaming among the nation’s thousands of schools, says the Associated Press. But in 2011, a majority of districts surveyed said they had unpaid meal charges, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal school lunch program. Millions have piled up nationwide, and the debt is a growing burden for an increasing number of financially challenged school districts.
Districts trying to cope with the unpaid lunch bills have used a variety of measures against the children of the parents besides the cold sandwich substitutes. They make the students wear distinctive wrist bands. They make them do work in the cafeteria or other school chores. They forbid them from participating in extracurricular activities or even attending graduation ceremonies.
The idea is that if the students feel the pain, they will put pressure on their parents to pay the bills.
Perhaps this is a good point for me to try to make a few things clear:
I do not disagree with the idea that poor nutrition can affect student performance. That’s just common sense.
I don’t argue that government in the land of plenty has no role in fighting hunger. My family was eligible for and participated in the commodities program, the forerunner of food stamps.
I don’t even claim this is a new abuse of authority by the government, since the first federal lunch program was passed in 1946, before I was even born.
And I certainly don’t think children should be punished for the sins of their parents.
But let’s not overlook what’s going on. This is not about hunger or poverty.
The national school lunch program serves about 30 million children whose parents fit the government’s income guidelines. About 20 million of them qualify for free lunches, and 2 million qualify for a reduced-price lunch of 40 cents. The remaining 8 million remaining pay the full price as set by school districts. Students with unpaid meal charges are the ones affected by lunch shaming.
And Department of Agriculture guidelines don’t allow federal nutrition money to be used to retire such debts. School districts are required to collect them – or eat them.
You can see where this is headed. Why not just go ahead and make all school meals free to everyone? What’s a few billion dollars more in the face of trillions in federal debt no one really thinks will come due anyway, especially if it will keep our children from being shamed?
That is, in fact, becoming the prevailing argument in that national conversation I keep missing out on. And Washington already has a head start in that direction, with a program allowing federal subsidy of both lunch and breakfast for all in schools where 40 percent of the parents meet income guidelines.
Government doesn’t always (even often) grow from big gulps by the federal government, after a huge national debate over something like health care. Government eases into an area, then takes a nibble here and a nibble there until we wake up one morning believing that the most sensible and logical next step is for it to just take that last bite.
And that is truly a shame.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.