When a Free Lunch isn’t Good Enough

I recently read an article titled Cold Meal for Kids Behind on their Lunch Fee, about kids in public schools in Snohomish County, Washington, who forget their lunch money. The standard practice is to give them credit so they can get a hot meal anyway. Up until recently, the school districts made no attempt to recoup that money. Apparently, that led to a lot of kids taking advantage of the system and, last year, the Edmonds school district alone lost $207,763 in unpaid lunch money.

Because of tighter budgets, they’re now trying to change that policy. In the Edmonds school district, after a student exceeds $10 in unpaid lunches, the next time they forget their lunch money, they’re given a cheese sandwich (at no charge) instead of credit. In the Mukilteo school district, students can charge up to five breakfasts and five lunches before their credit is cut off. After exceeding the limit, the school gives them a sandwich, vegetable, fruit, and milk (all at no charge).

After implementing the new policy, the Edmonds school district recouped $45,269, in the first five days, from 961 students (an average of $47 each) who had apparently made a habit of forgetting their lunch money before the credit limit went into effect. These aren’t kids who can’t afford to buy lunch. Those kids qualify for free lunches through a government program for low-income families. These are kids who either don’t bother to remember, because it doesn’t matter, or who have discovered better things to do with their lunch money than buy lunch.

What these kids have been taught is that, if you don’t have the money to buy something, you can just say “charge it,” and then it’s free! And there’s no limit to how much you can charge without ever having to pay it back. Yet we wonder why kids grow up with no sense of fiscal responsibility (and why we have an epidemic of people swimming in credit card debt, spending more than they earn, buying houses they can’t afford, and defaulting on their mortgages).

One might wonder why the schools hadn’t figured this out sooner. But, now that they have, the communities are up in arms. How can you take away a child’s hot lunch and give them a cold sandwich, instead? It’s heartless! When I went to school, I used to make my own lunch every day. A cold sandwich was pretty standard. If I overslept, and didn’t have time to pack a lunch, I didn’t eat lunch that day. But I made sure I got up earlier the next day.

God forbid anybody should expect a kid to make their own lunch these days. (Next they might be expected to make their own bed!) Instead, we’re teaching them that they’re entitled to a full hot meal, at somebody else’s expense, and that it’s an insult to be given a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a glass of milk. Ironically, it isn’t insulting because it’s a handout, but because they’re entitled to more!

Some people are worried that giving a kid a cheese sandwich might make them ashamed because it looks like they can’t afford to buy lunch. When I was a kid, everybody knew whose parents were richer or poorer than others. Not that it mattered to the kids (at least to most of them). But it was clear from the clothes they wore, the toys they had, and the houses in which they lived. You can’t hide that from kids. That’s life.

But, if a kid does feel a sense of shame at being poor, is that necessarily bad? Throughout our history, that very sense of shame has provided a powerful incentive to many children growing up in poverty to work hard and make sure they don’t stay poor. If we teach our children that poverty is just as good as prosperity, and people who don’t have as much as others deserve to have it given to them, why should anybody strive for anything better?

The article also says “Federal laws aimed at making sure kids eat balanced meals require school staff to review lunches before children eat.” I wonder if they review the lunches of the kids who bring their lunch from home, too. Do they make each kid open their lunch sack so they can peer inside? Do they open up their sandwiches to make sure they’re eating something nutritious and not just Marshmallow Fluff?

The idea seems to be to absolve parents of having to take responsibility for their kids, and to absolve kids of having to take any responsibility for themselves. Instead, it’s up to the federal government to make sure everybody gets a free lunch. What kind of a lesson is that to instill in impressionable children?

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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I read the article. First thought: Why wait until *after* a kid has filled the tray with food to run the credit check? That is a lot of food that gets wasted.

    Second thought: If they really want to teach the kids a lesson about credit, the kids should have to pay back the amount borrowed plus 10 percent.

  2. Hello there! long time hugh?

    Nice article btw, those children must learn the causality of not paying their bills. And I don`t think that give a cheese sandwich, a fruit and milk to the kids that didn`t pay their debits it`s unfair, this is a LOT more than some kids eat here in my country during the day.


  3. Welcome back, Artwo. It’s good to see you again. (And it’s nice to agree, for a change, also. :)

  4. Wiggles, I agree, it is a shame to waste the food. The article said one school district has kids pay before they go through the line, so I don’t see why the others couldn’t do that as well.

  5. “You couldn’t just go to McDonald’s without any money and expect service.”

    Actually, I’ve seen just that happen myself. I don’t know *what* program was sponsoring free meals from McDonald’s of all places. The young kid that got one was a refugee from Africa.

    The funny thing is, on the rare occasion that I would buy a lunch back in elementary school…it was always a chesseburger, and the burger & cheese were always stone cold…and I loved it… :) PBJ was pretty standard in my bagged lunch as well.

    I agree with Wigglesworth that they shouldn’t let the kids waste food.

  6. “What kind of a lesson is that to instill in impressionable children?”

    It is the entitlement lesson. The lesson preached by liberals all over the country, it is the gub’mints job to take care of you, it is the gub’mints job make sure you get get 3 hots and a cot, its the gub’mints job to put you in a house (now)…

    It is not surprising that a free lunch program is being taken advantage of, what is surprising is that a county is actually trying to recoup the stolen funds. I know it sounds harsh, if you take something, in this case a free lunch, that isn’t yours to take, it is stealing plain and simple, that statement obviously does NOT include the kids that qualify for free lunches. I do understand that kids can forget things, but 5 or 10 freebies before the school starts to catch on?

  7. Let them eat cheese!

  8. […] presents When A Free Lunch isn?t Good Enough posted at Government is not your […]

  9. I would like to blend the theme of this forum with my own bashing of free health care as proposed by Senator Obama. The theme on this board is that if you give away free lunches to needy children, un needy children will find a way to share in the free bounty. In the mean time the un needy bust the program, as it goes over budget.

    I have always wished that anyone, McCain, Republicans, what passes for journalists, anyone at all, would ask Senator Obama, or for that matter Senator Hillary, if they could show us where in the world where their proposed plan of free healthcare is working and on budget.

    I will now show where it has failed.


    “HONOLULU – Hawaii is dropping the only state universal child health care program in the country just seven months after it launched.”
    “A state official said families were dropping private coverage so their children would be eligible for the subsidized plan.

    “People who were already able to afford health care began to stop paying for it so they could get it for free,” said Dr. Kenny Fink, the administrator for Med-QUEST at the Department of Human Services. “I don’t believe that was the intent of the program.””

    Unfortunately for Hawaii, they can’t just print money as Washington can to cover their good intentions.

  10. My child had this happen just yesterday, and the humiliation of it is something that has to be addressed. My child has depression and has been suicide this year he is 12. It is cruel and inhumane to take punishment on the children who do not control the parents finances! Some parents, despite financial hardship, still do not qualify for free or reduced lunch. I do not qualify. Income is the only criteria, and that has to change because as we all know in these hard times that income alone is not a determination of what income we have in out budget. I was hurt at work and am currently awaiting compensation of any kind. While I am back to work now I am in debt for what I have not received in compensation there for my income to actual budget ratio makes a very different outcome. My income shows I should be able to afford the lunches however, my rent, electric credit card ( to by groceries during that hard time) show otherwise. I do not make a habit of using my credit card at all. However when you do not have 7 days income that you are owed and you still need to feed your family meals at home you have to use it. All I am saying is that, it’s easy to judge what you do not know, so maybe we should ALL know what we are judging first. Take the time to contact the parents and find out what is going on before this happens. Fix the application process so that it represents actual budget with bills included, and perhaps change policy. It’s law that our children have to attend school ( a good law, but law none the less) so it should be federal law that they all be fed a hot meal every day no matter what. If Washington can afford to spend 3 million dollars on researching toilet seats, they can certainly feed are children.

  11. @Kelly, I am sorry you are in the situation you are in, however, when you say “…so it should be federal law that they all be fed a hot meal every day no matter what.” Please explain to me how I need to ensure YOUR (or any) child is fed a hot (or any) meal at any time. You are aware that the federal government “money” is a result of the taxes people pay right?

  12. All I’m thinking is, if these children and by that I mean their parents, wont pay for a school lunch they should pack one! I can afford to buy “hot lunch” for my kids but opt to pack one. I eat a sandwich, veggies and milk for lunch, so will my kids. What are these children being fed during school breaks, vacations, weekends, evenings? If you spend that much on groceries so that you don’t qualify for free lunch… PACK YOUR KIDS A LUNCH! And let the kids who really need a free lunch maybe get a better one!

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