When I was a kid, I qualified for free lunch at school. Every Monday morning the teacher would call us up to the front of the class and hand out the little blue punch cards that got us through the line without paying. They were like scarlet letters spelling out the word P-O-O-R.
But really, the problem wasn’t that we got our lunch for free. The problem was that all the other kids had to pay for it.
Mecklenburg County is now dealing with the common and completely unnecessary problem of tracking whether students pay for their lunch every day. The school system sent parents an automated call last week saying that students wouldn’t be able to go into debt to buy lunch. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools later clarified that the policy applies to high schools only, and students at any school can apply for free lunches. But if they don’t qualify, it’s cash up front or they don’t eat.
Let me go ahead and respond to what some of you are thinking: Of course there are some kids who try to game the system. They pocket their lunch money to spend on something else, and hope the school lets them run up a tab. Yep, some teenagers are scam artists. It’s not breaking news.
But I promise you there are at least as many kids whose families are stretched and have a hard time affording even CMS’ reasonable prices.
You can buy extras, but the basic lunch in CMS high schools costs $3, plus 60 cents for milk. That’s $3.60 a day, or $18 a week, or about $72 a month. Seventy-two dollars matters, even in a middle-class family. That might pay the power bill, or buy a week’s worth of groceries, or get a couple tanks of gas.
At 68 of CMS’ 175 schools, every student gets free lunch because of the student body’s poverty level. But no kids should have to make the call every day about whether to buy lunch or not. They’ve got too much other stuff to stress about. A free lunch should be a regular part of the school day.
Now, when I say “free,” that doesn’t mean families can’t help cover the cost. Schools could charge a fee to be paid at the beginning of each school year. Families could apply for subsidies, just like they do now. I know some parents make lunches for their kids, and some of them would pay for a service their kids wouldn’t use. There’s no perfect way to do it.
But it seems like it might actually save money in the long run if CMS didn’t have to police the lunch line every day, and wouldn’t have to chase down kids for not paying their debts.
School lunches have become a political issue across the country, as some districts have dealt with unpaid lunch debt by offering them lesser meals, denying them lunch completely, or even not letting them graduate. The costs are real – CMS absorbed the cost of $389,000 in unpaid lunches last year.
But there’s got to be a better way to handle it than by shaming kids whose families might have problems that don’t show up in the paperwork.
There are so many times during the school day when things can make you feel like an outsider. So many times when the smallest difference matters. We should make it not matter whether a kid has lunch money or not.
Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column normally runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at firstname.lastname@example.org.