Home | About Us | Services | Schedule | How to Arrive

When A Free Lunch Isnt Good Enough

I recently read an article titled Cold Meal for Kids Behind on their Lunch Fee, about kids in public schools in Snohomish County, Washington, who forget their lunch money. The standard practice is to give them credit so they can get a hot meal anyway. Up until recently, the school districts made no attempt to recoup that money. Apparently, that led to a lot of kids taking advantage of the system and, last year, the Edmonds school district alone lost $207,763 in unpaid lunch money.

Because of tighter budgets, they're now trying to change that policy. In the Edmonds school district, after a student exceeds $10 in unpaid lunches, the next time they forget their lunch money, they're given a cheese sandwich (at no charge) instead of credit. In the Mukilteo school district, students can charge up to five breakfasts and five lunches before their credit is cut off. After exceeding the limit, the school gives them a sandwich, vegetable, fruit, and milk (all at no charge).

After implementing the new policy, the Edmonds school district recouped $45,269, in the first five days, from 961 students (an average of $47 each) who had apparently made a habit of forgetting their lunch money before the credit limit went into effect. These aren't kids who can't afford to buy lunch. Those kids qualify for free lunches through a government program for low-income families. These are kids who either don't bother to remember, because it doesn't matter, or who have discovered better things to do with their lunch money than buy lunch.

What these kids have been taught is that, if you don't have the money to buy something, you can just say "charge it," and then it's free! And there's no limit to how much you can charge without ever having to pay it back. Yet we wonder why kids grow up with no sense of fiscal responsibility (and why we have an epidemic of people swimming in credit card debt, spending more than they earn, buying houses they can't afford, and defaulting on their mortgages).

One might wonder why the schools hadn't figured this out sooner. But, now that they have, the communities are up in arms. How can you take away a child's hot lunch and give them a cold sandwich, instead? It's heartless! When I went to school, I used to make my own lunch every day. A cold sandwich was pretty standard. If I overslept, and didn't have time to pack a lunch, I didn't eat lunch that day. But I made sure I got up earlier the next day.

God forbid anybody should expect a kid to make their own lunch these days. (Next they might be expected to make their own bed!) Instead, we're teaching them that they're entitled to a full hot meal, at somebody else's expense, and that it's an insult to be given a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a glass of milk. Ironically, it isn't insulting because it's a handout, but because they're entitled to more!

Some people are worried that giving a kid a cheese sandwich might make them ashamed because it looks like they can't afford to buy lunch. When I was a kid, everybody knew whose parents were richer or poorer than others. Not that it mattered to the kids (at least to most of them). But it was clear from the clothes they wore, the toys they had, and the houses in which they lived. You can't hide that from kids. That's life.

But, if a kid does feel a sense of shame at being poor, is that necessarily bad? Throughout our history, that very sense of shame has provided a powerful incentive to many children growing up in poverty to work hard and make sure they don't stay poor. If we teach our children that poverty is just as good as prosperity, and people who don't have as much as others deserve to have it given to them, why should anybody strive for anything better?

The article also says "Federal laws aimed at making sure kids eat balanced meals require school staff to review lunches before children eat." I wonder if they review the lunches of the kids who bring their lunch from home, too. Do they make each kid open their lunch sack so they can peer inside? Do they open up their sandwiches to make sure they're eating something nutritious and not just Marshmallow Fluff?