There's been a lot of coverage in the news lately about schools and kids with negative balances in the cafeteria. There are stories of food being served to and then taken away from kids because of a negative balance on their cafeteria account. Stories of kids crying due to the shaming, kids being hungry the rest of the day.
Then there's the silver lining - the people who step in and pay the negative balance of all the kids so that the children won't be refused food.
I think this is awesome. Because anyone who has their heart in the place to want to protect kids from shame and make sure that kids get a good meal - that's someone doing the right thing.
But things have to change beyond bringing balances up to zero dollars. Because what happens the next day? Another lunch or breakfast purchased... and another negative balance.
Most school lunches cost around $2-3. My school's elementary lunches are $2.30. In a week, if my child buys every day, that's $11.50.
Bring a balance to zero, it goes negative the next day and you are back in the same boat.
Bring a balance to zero, give an extra $20 and the kid eats for almost 2 weeks.
But more than that, put pressure on the school to change their policies.
Lunch ladies should never be the Lunch Gestapo. Schools shouldn't be empowering them or expecting them to assert this type of control over who does or doesn't eat. A lunch lady should be focused on providing food for kids. Period.
Negative account? I think the office should handle it. I get that every role in a school is overworked, underpaid, and under appreciated. But I think you end up with a conflict of interest when you ask the people who prepare and serve the food to also police the food.
A consistently negative account may well be a sign of bigger problems. Did a parent lose a job? Was there a divorce? Or illness? By following up more directly, maybe the school ends up learning something valuable about the child's home environment. Maybe the child needs to be on a lunch program but the parent hasn't been able to pursue that for whatever reason.
Can the PTA or PTO somehow be involved in the solution? We do fundraisers for classroom iPads but what if there was a fundraiser to provide a cushion fund for lunch accounts? Maybe the PTA/PTO can work with the cafeteria to sponsor a dinner and parents and community people can attend and the money raised becomes that fund?
I have a lot of emotional connections to food and hunger and embarassment and shame. I don't have any bad memories of not being able to eat at school or anything. I have no idea if I had free lunches or if my mom sent in lunch money or if I packed a lunch - I just don't recall.
In my ideal world, no person should feel shame about food. It's a dream, I know. And maybe the first step is empowering people to encourage the hungry and support anyone who needs food. Heck, even picking up the bill for a friend or co-worker when they realize they forgot their wallet is a way of encouraging and supporting!
What can we do as a community to help alleviate the school lunch hunger situation? Call your school and ask how they handle cafeteria accounts that are negative. Offer to head up a fundraiser to alleviate the negative balances and build positive ones. Or if you're just extremely generous, put your own money towards it. But more than throwing money at it... see if there is some way to work with and support your local school to make changes to their current policies. Get involved with your school board if necessary. You don't have to have kids in school to be involved. You can take action as a concerned citizen.
Paying off negative balances is certainly generous and gives us all warm fuzzies. But it's essentially a bandage on a bigger problem. What can YOU do to help fix thebigger problem?