Friday, February 22, 2013

Thoughts on shame in the school lunch line


The brilliant actress Maggie Smith of “Downton Abbey” quoted the playwright Noel Coward on “60 Minutes” Sunday night in talking about her advancing age. She’s 78.

“It seems like you eat breakfast every 30 minutes,” Smith said, referring to how days go racing by as one matures.

Fair enough.

For many Iowa kids, though, it is all about the food. Breakfast isn’t a metaphor. It’s something they apparently skip — or maybe get once every 30 days.

According to the most recent Iowa Kids Count report, in 2011, 38.2 percent of students in Iowa’s public schools were eligible for free-and-reduced lunches.

According to the U.S. Census, the 2011 poverty level for a family of three with two members under the age of 18 was $18,123. For family of four with three members under 18 the poverty level stood at $22,891 in 2011. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for this school year make a student eligible for free lunches if his family is at 130 percent of poverty and reduced lunches if her family is at 185 percent of poverty.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was in grade school, we all seemed to know at least some of the kids who were on the free-or-reduced program as we went through the lunch lines. We used punch cards then, and students, when theirs ran out, often purchased new ones in the open, making it easy to tell who was getting a better deal than others. The colors of the cards were different, too. And if you wanted an extra milk or slice of pizza you’d see some people paying a dime or two less.

Today, that’s not possible as students key in pin numbers, like at an ATM machine, at higher grade levels, and staff scan rosters for the younger kids.

In the end, no one wants a kid to go hungry because his parents can’t make enough money to pay for the school lunch. Few things in life are more heart-breaking than a hungry kid.

Then again, there are many people buying things they don’t need — and not giving a second thought to filling out the paperwork for the free-and-reduced lunches.

What’s more, in the days when we seemed to know who was on the dole, the element of shame perhaps served as a motivator for those kids to work a little harder in class after lunch so they could improve their own stations in life. I’ve interviewed successful people from humble means who have told me as much.

Having just seen the tragic documentary film “Bully” — which doesn’t exactly portray the Sioux City public schools in a positive way — showcasing class divisions, income inequality, among children, is fraught with all sorts of potential for trouble.

But conservatives have fertile and fair ground here. The blind assistance of today’s program shields youngsters from the reality of capitalism. But some day they will face The Big Sort — between the winners and losers in our system.

This sounds harsh. But there are other options. Those eligible for the free-and-reduced lunches can slap away the helping hand. With thrifty shopping, families can send kids to school with healthy affordable sack lunches instead.

School officials tell me this happens as many of the families eligible for the break on lunch just don’t take it.

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