Shame with a side order of tater tots

The Chicago Tribune reports on the Albuquerque public school system’s new policy of providing students whose parents either fail or are unable to pay for lunch with a “courtesy meal” consisting of a cold cheese sandwich, a piece of fruit and milk.

Second grader Danessa Vigil said she had to eat cheese sandwiches because her mother couldn’t afford to give her lunch money while her application for free lunch was being processed.

Now, “every time I eat it, it makes me feel like I want to throw up,” the 7-year-old said.

Her mother, Darlene Vigil, said there are days she can’t spare lunch money for her two daughters.

Schools in California, Florida and Washington have similar policies, claiming they do not have the funds in their budgets to provide hot meals to children whose parents do not provide the means to pay for them, whether by sending money or applying for the government supported free lunch program.  I’m of two minds about this.  On one hand, yes, it’s true that schools are under no legal obligation to provide students with hot, healthy food.  Also true, you could do worse nutritionally than a cheese sandwich and fruit; in fact, going by this picture it would appear that the standard lunches offered by most public schools haven’t improved much in quality since I was a Deadly Stealth Tadpole back in the late 70s and 80s, and are still loaded with fat, preservatives and high fructose corn syrup.  The sandwich might actually be a healthier choice.  Your intestinal tract will certainly thank you for it.

On the other hand, let’s not kid ourselves by believing that this is entirely a benevolent act.  It’s quite clear that this is meant to be a lesson to the parents: you don’t pay, your kid gets singled out with the “courtesy meal.”  Going by how the meals are distributed, it would appear this is not done discreetly: another article about Albuquerque’s policy reports that students are “pulled out” of the lunch line and given the sandwich, undoubtedly in front of their classmates.  I understand that public schools are constantly short on funds, like the shitty quality of hot lunches and serving pizza every Friday that also hasn’t changed since I was young, however I don’t buy that setting young children up as some sort of example of what happens if their parents don’t provide the means to pay for lunch is entirely constructive.

This is learning by humiliation, and when you learn a particular lesson in that manner the experience will always stick with you more than the lesson itself.  When I was in fourth grade I had a teacher who thought she would teach me a lesson about keeping my desk clean and organized by dumping the contents out on the floor and making me get down and clean it up in front of my classmates.  Twenty-seven years later my desk is still as messy as ever, but I still remember that incident and the searing humiliation I felt.  I don’t necessarily hope Mrs. L___ is dead now, but I at least hope she is living miserable and alone in a one-room apartment with only a hot plate and a mangy, hateful, flea-ridden cat to keep her company.  But, you know, I’m not bitter or anything.

School is hard enough without this shit.  The cheese sandwich policy is all but branding students with a scarlet letter P, and it’s asinine that administrators either don’t recognize or refuse to acknowledge its potential for embarassment.  In a perfect world, parents who can pay would pay, and those who can’t would apply for a reduced or free lunch program, ideally without a delayed acceptance process and without the shame that comes when one has to admit that he or she is unable to fully provide for his or her children.  That ain’t gonna happen, though, and there simply has to be a better way to address the matter of settling up debts that can be handled between schools and parents directly, leaving the kids out of it.

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3 Responses to “Shame with a side order of tater tots”

  1. What I don’t understand is why everyone’s so wedded to the idea of the hot lunch as the standard. As you point out, the food quality sucks, the nutritive value is virtually nil–why not just give all the kids a cheese sandwich and a piece of fruit? It’s heather, tastier, and apparently cheaper.

  2. I’m guessing part of the reason for this is also the fact that schools are desperate — desperate, I tell you! — to have as many eligible parents as possible fill out the free lunch application, because it affects the school’s ability to get Title I funding from the feds. What a pity that they’re resorting to shaming the children, who obviously have no control over whether their parents get their shit together to fill out a form, in order to do it.

  3. priskiller Says:

    Sadly, my ignorant ass would’ve read this article with a feeling of unease but unsure where to attribute it. Thank you (and your commenters!) for seeing through the bullshit. “Courtesy” indeed.

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