The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My school district fired me after I gave a free meal to a student who couldn’t pay

We should provide taxpayer-funded free lunches to all students.

During my year as an elementary school kitchen manager, kids came through my lunch line without money for all kinds of reasons: Some lost the check their parents had given them.  Some had divorced parents who weren’t communicating. Others had single parents who just got busy and forgot to give them money. My school district mandates that, after three incidents in a row, kitchen supervisors take away that child’s hot lunch and replace it with a slice of cheese on a bun. I refused to do that, and was fired.

My school district isn’t unique. Across the country, schools are using cheese sandwiches to punish children for lunch debts. They say it’s necessary to balance cafeteria budgets. Not only is a cheese-sandwich meal unhealthy, it’s humiliating. Children are teased by classmates who perceive them as “poor.” Others cry as they watch their hamburger and French fries swapped for a slice of cheese.  I saw one first grader choose to go hungry rather than suffer that shame.

Like many of the children who came through my line without money, this first grader wasn’t in the free or reduced-price lunch program, a federal policy that makes school meals accessible to low-income families. Counselors and teachers had told me that her home life was not the most stable, but every day, she came through my lunch line with a big smile. When her account went negative, I put a stamp on her hand, per district policy, and lovingly reminded her she needed to bring money.  The next day, she still didn’t have the $2.80 for lunch, and on the third, she hit her debt limit: $8.40.  I contacted her teacher, who told me she would look into the problem. But I found the girl sitting at her table with no food the next day.  She said her guardians didn’t have the money, but she didn’t want to eat a cheese sandwich.  I looked her straight in the eye and promised that I would always feed her a full lunch.  The girl’s problem wasn’t resolved before I was terminated, and I worry about her every day. [Editor’s note: In statements, Cherry Creek School District in Colorado has said Curry was fired for unrelated reasons, but the district says it’s forbidden by privacy laws from revealing them.] Our society shouldn’t allow children to go hungry because of their parents’ debts.

There is a simple solution to ensuring that every child receives a hot, filling, nutritious meal every school day: provide taxpayer-funded free lunches for all of them. We already do this for millions of schoolchildren. About 19 million students are enrolled in the federal free-lunch program because of low family incomes. Through the Community Eligibility Provision, the federal government splits meal costs with school districts to provide free lunches to 6.4 million children attending high-poverty schools. And more than 13 million students eat free breakfasts at school, too.

The infrastructure already exists to establish a universal free school-lunch program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently reimburses schools $2.98 for every lunch they provide under the free-lunch program. Instead of the byzantine system of income qualifications, eligibility forms and meal-by-meal reimbursements that inflate the cost of operating the National School Lunch Program, simplify it and redistribute the program’s $11.6 billion budget to provide free meals to all 31 million public school students who eat school lunches.

Any extra money it would cost to do this is well worth it. Providing a quality education to all children is one of our national values, but we cannot effectively educate children who are not properly fed. Numerous studies have shown the negative effects of hunger on the learning process. Poor nutrition is linked to weaker cognitive ability, impaired school engagement and hyperactivity in children. More and more school districts are recognizing the educational benefits of providing free, nutritious meals. Baltimore schools, for instance, now offer free breakfast and lunch to all students. The program was launched through Maryland’s new Hunger Free Schools Act with the understanding that “being able to eat at school is directly tied to better academic performance, better success and outcomes, and it lets students focus on getting through the day without having to be hungry,” State Delegate Keith Haynes, chief sponsor of the legislation, told the Huffington Post.

At the very least, we know the cheese-sandwich system can’t stand. It is humiliating, unhealthy and unnecessary. A child fed just 162 calories (the amount in a slice of cheese, a hamburger bun and a small carton of milk) cannot be satisfied by a meal with little fiber and vitamins. Further, no school policy should include the type of public humiliation children face when their hot meal is taken from them and thrown out. Any student in the school lunch program can tell you just how degrading that flimsy cheese sandwich is. It shames them for a situation that is not their responsibility and sets the stage for bullying. Schools cannot justify balancing their budgets by sacrificing children’s physical and mental health. Almost any other solution would be more morally sound.

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