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Lileks: Why humiliate kids without lunch money?

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS
  • Star Tribune
  • February 13, 2014 - 8:58 PM

I pack sensible school lunches. Here are some carrots, child — at least look at them before you throw them out. Here are some raisins. If you trade them for Cheez-Its, I will know. Here is a sandwich with the crusts removed, because we all know crusts violate the Lunch Crime Conventions of Vienna. Here is the flavored-water portion with lots of vitamin C, so you won’t get scurvy on the long bus rides. Here’s the bag with the top nearly crimped. I would iron it and seal it with staples but we’re rushed this morning. Have a great day.

Half an hour later you see the bag on the kitchen table. All that work for naught. Well, she’ll learn her lesson. She’ll have to eat … school food. This was regarded as punishment enough, since the menu items seemed to be things like “breaded glue” and “fish, technically” and “vegetable mush in water sauce.”

In case she had to resort to institutional offerings, we put a few bucks in an account at the school. Good thing it was current, because as we’ve learned from recent reports, kids who try to take school food without sufficient funds in the account get just what’s coming to the little leeches. Low-income students who can’t fork over 40 cents — less than a postage stamp — often have the meal taken out of their hands and thrown away. Some school districts stamp their hands with the word “LUNCH” or “MONEY.”

Just in case the kids didn’t realize they were poor.

Not that they go hungry: Bread and butter or cold cheese sandwiches are offered. Sounds pretty good, unless it’s that bread that tastes like bleached newspaper with neutral-flavored cheese-hued vinyl. Still. You’re surprised someone doesn’t rupture a grape over a quart of water and call it juice.

But hey! A little shame builds character, right? In my junior high they served caramel rolls the size of throw pillows, and I ended up shopping for slacks at the husky lads section of Penneys. It was humiliating to be pudgy, and I was glad when I got to high school, discovered the food was completely inedible and lost a lot of weight. But it would have done me good if they’d stamped “FATSO” on my hand every time I bought a caramel roll.

So let’s think if there’s some way we can stigmatize poor kids even more.

• A flashing red light and siren goes off when a poor kid attempts to get a meal.

• Drones follow the kid home at a low altitude, periodically dropping pictures of happy kids in nice homes eating pizza while playing Xbox on a 57-inch TV.

• The hand stamp is indelible for five years, glows in the dark; after five attempts to eat lunch, forehead is stamped with backward letters so the kid can see it in the mirror.

• Dumping out the food sends a message, but it might be better to have a small pen of pigs in the cafeteria, and feed the tray’s contents to the pigs. They’re cute! Everyone loves pigs.

You might say there are other issues at work here, and you’re right: parental involvement, eligibility standards, food-stamp expenditures, farm bill subsidies, etc., but when a kid’s hungry at school you let them eat. How many days in a row then? I don’t know. Let them eat. Isn’t this unfair to the parents who pay? Maybe. Let them eat. You can think of many good arguments for a rigorous policy that’s fair to all. In the meantime, let them eat.

We’re talking 40 cents here — $2 a week. If you assume 160 days of school, and assume every one of the 62,000 low-income kids doesn’t pay, that’s $4 million a year. State and local education is $16.4 billion. You could suspect they could scare up 4 mil just by announcing immediate termination for any employee who takes a ballpoint pen home from the office.

That’s one take. You could also say that $2 a week is not only a reasonable requirement, it emphasizes the idea of parental responsibility, and gives the kid the dignity you feel when you pay for something instead of having it given to you. That lesson — help must be accompanied by your own contribution — seems like a fair plank of the social contract.

There are many good and logical arguments, but it still comes down to someone saying, “We need to establish a policy for taking away a hot meal from a kid in front of everyone else in the social arena of the lunchroom and handing him Penalty Bread.” And it still comes down to your revulsion for making the kid pay because the parent didn’t.

How about make it a statewide policy that the kid gets a week before he gets the punishment sandwich? If he shows up the next week without 40 cents, they had fair warning, and it’s bread and butter. No putting it in the microwave for 10 seconds either. That would be a hot lunch, kid, and those are for the other children. Got it?

Oh, he’ll get it all right.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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