School Cafeteria Firing Begs the Question: Why Charge For School Lunch?

An elementary school kitchen manager from Aurora, Colorado was fired this past Wednesday for providing hot meals to students who were not paid up on their school lunch accounts.

“I had a first grader in front of me, crying, because she doesn’t have enough money for lunch. Yes, I gave her lunch,” the worker, Della Curry, said.

A school district representative responded by noting that students who can’t pay get a cold meal instead. That “meal” consists of two hamburger buns and a slice of cheese.

It’s not the child’s fault if the parent can’t pay or hasn’t been keeping up on account payments, according to a statement from the Food Action and Research Center. The school was using food as a punishment tool, placing a stigma on children of financially struggling parents by telling them they are worth less than other children and don’t deserve food because of it.

Ask yourself this: Why are we making children pay for school meals in the first place? They don’t make any money, and food is a basic necessity of life. Many online commentators criticized the cafeteria worker for letting the children “steal” food. These kids were “stealing” food in the same way that they “steal” a free public education: they weren’t. If every child has the right to free public education, why don’t they also have the right to free food while in the school’s hands – especially when study after study shows that meals are important to student performance?

It seems nonsensical to allow children who can to buy better access to a hot meal than children who can’t. After all, if children are hungry, they aren’t learning. And staggering numbers of American children are still food insecure; the Coalition for Human Needs puts the number at 15.8 million children. More than one in five kids – and almost one in three African-American and Latino children – are going hungry every day.

There is hope on the horizon. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 included the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which kicked into full gear this past school year. Instead of a using an individual student-targeted approach for free or reduced lunches, it expands free meals to all students in schools with a population that’s at least 40 percent low-income. This reduces the stigma placed on individual students receiving free or reduced lunches, cuts out the ridiculous “transaction” of school lunch, and ensures that all students in a school have equal access to hot, nutritious meals.

The latest numbers from FRAC show this program to be a massive success; nearly 14,000 schools, over 2,000 school districts, and 6.4 million children are enrolled. This past week, the Baltimore school system jumped on board, and many more are deciding over the next two months whether to participate or not (school districts can get involved here).

But even if all eligible schools participate in CEP, it would only go so far. The majority of schools aren’t eligible, and students in those schools will still fall through the cracks. Parents forget to add money to their accounts, students don’t claim free or reduced-price lunches because of stigma, and homeless students can’t get paperwork in.

Congress actually included language in the 2010 bill that forced schools to increase lunch prices, helping to erase the gains of CEP expansion by pushing more than 3 million students off of paid lunches. Many of them are now going without food.

There are two routes we can take. The first involves the current battle – pushing for increased funding for federal nutrition programs. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture is meeting to debate funding over the next few weeks, and CAF has joined over a thousand other organizations in urging Congress to increase funding. (Individuals can sign this petition to urge Congress’ support.)

The second is to have the discussion we haven’t had, but absolutely should: free lunch for all students. Advocated most eloquently in Janet Poppendieck’s book “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” this is a step several other countries have already taken. Just this past year, the center-right Liberal Democrats made free lunches for all a reality in Britain. They have already seen incredible participation and significant improvement in test scores.

It is time for America to eliminate hunger for all of our children. This final step would ensure that no cafeteria worker would be fired for giving out free food – and no school child would again go hungry.

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