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I’m Sorry, What? Don’t Go Into Lunch Debt

Hi, yes, good morning, good afternoon, whatever you like. It’s Monday, whatever, whatever whatever, sure was hot this weekend, did ya beat the heat? Blah blah blah.  Okay, now that this is out of the way, let me get down to why I’m here.

Yesterday the ever wonderful JennaCrowley sent me a message: “I think you should write about the school lunch thing.” Now, I spent all day yesterday unpacking and cleaning as I just moved into a new apartment.  I had briefly seen something on Twitter about school pizza, so… Jenna wants me to write about school pizza? I mean… I guess I could? Like it’s good, but it’s not the tits, ya know? But instead I asked her to explain, and she sent me a link to news story out of Pennsylvania, which is now making national news.  Here’s the headline:

‘Pennsylvania school district tells parents to pay their lunch debt, or their kids will go into foster care’

“I’m sorry, what?” I said out loud to absolutely no one in particular. There’s nothing that really gets me going quite like dumb administrators and stupid stuff being done in schools, but not to kids and families.  But as I read the article after article about this, I kept repeating the same thing: “Are you fucking kidding me?”  

Turns, out, NO! The Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania sent out about 1,000 letters to parents earlier in the month, stating that if their child or children had lunch debt, they could be sent to Dependency Court, which could result in the child being removed from the home and being placed in foster care.  The district’s previous policy was that when the lunch account was in debt more than $10, the parents would receive a phone call every Friday. So, we go from an automated phone call once a week to threatening legal action and separating families… that’s how they are going to play it. And if you’re wondering if the PA County’s Children and Youth Services were kosher with this deal – they didn’t even know it was happening.  Hey, I would like to declare, district, that you suck. 

Apparently, the brain trusts behind this was identified by CNN as a one Joseph Muth. The Washington Post also identified Charles Coslett, the school solicitor, as a co-author of the lunch shaming shithead letter. CNN reports that “Joseph Muth, the director of federal programs for the school district, was identified by WNEP as the man who wrote the letter. Muth told the affiliate the letter was a “last resort” and that the district is owed more than $22,000 by roughly 1,000 students. Four accounts show parents owe more than $450 each, WNEP reported. Muth also told the affiliate the school district was considering serving students with delinquent accounts peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”  Again, we go from “hmm, let’s just serve a PB&J” to “PAY ME MY MONEY OR I’M TAKING YOUR KIDS AWAY!” Interesting thought process there, Joe & Charles. What a lazy, thoughtless response to something that is so much more complicated than it seems. 

Really, what’s eating me here is just that – eating! It’s not clear at all if this is being done. Let’s not forget, in all this hub-bub, if a kid owes money, what the hell is he or she actually eating for lunch?  Are these kids even allowed a cheese sandwich (bread, one slice of cheese, bread) if they’re in debt? The district isn’t even clear on what the actual guidelines are. Lunch shaming for kids who owe money isn’t a new thing – it’s become a hot topic in the past couple of years.  Kids who owe money can’t get hot lunch if they’re in debt, so they’ll get a yogurt bag or a cheese sandwich, nothing fancy like a square pizza, God forbid. There are also districts out there who prevent students from attending extra-curricular activities if they owe money, and there was even one district who tried to prevent students from attending graduation.  Again, are these the best that we can come up with? 

Look, I get that it’s frustrating to watch kids come in with no food or no money to pay for food: as an educator, it really upsets me when a kid comes in with no food. I have to stop and think about all of the possibilities about why a child has nothing to eat: sure, Mom or Dad or whoever is at home could have forgot lunch money that day, but that’s usually not the case.  There are so many families who legitimately cannot afford food, no matter where you live, someone is hungry. So, instead of victimizing these kids and families, maybe do something productive about it. Maybe instead of an automated phone message, call the families yourself! Maybe through a fucking conversation, you’ll realize that these families qualify for The National School Lunch Program. Or, I dunno, work with federal, state, and even local organizations and offices to actually get these kids food. 

And yeah, I certainly understand that the school is in the hole here for a bit of money… but aren’t there some other options on the spectrum of solutions?  Kind of seems like an extreme jump to me. Plus, how are you actually getting money back if a family doesn’t pay off the debt – for whatever reason – and thus, taken to court?  Again, contact local, state, and federal programs to try to get some money back. Maybe hold some fundraisers? How about revamping your health programs so that children understand why food is so important.  Perhaps hold a couple of parent information nights about different issues in the district, this obviously being one of them. No, let’s use the Children and Youth Services of the state, who are all overworked and underpaid as it is, to play the bad guy, because really, there isn’t anything we can seem to put our heads together and come up with.  

At least Joe seemed a bit apologetic.  He did admit that the letter was a bit “heavy” for some people, but that the district was not getting anywhere with the current policy.  Charles, or Chaz as I will refer to him, isn’t really backing down on his opinion, pretty much criticizing all of the parents who haven’t paid.  This whole ordeal is a lazy and disgusting last resort: just like a cheese sandwich. 

Original stories on CNN and The Washington Post

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