Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2010 / 3 Kislev, 5771
School lunch money a test?
By Marybeth Hicks
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Roughly 180 days a year, my morning ritual is the same: Roll out of bed. Put on the coffee. Pack the children's lunches.
I figure by the time my fourth child completes high school in 2015, I will have assembled approximately 9,360 sack lunches, give or take. The most complicated part? Remembering who hates mustard.
Of course, we could participate in the school lunch program, and occasionally (read: when we're out of bread), I put cash in my child's pocket rather than turkey (light mustard, no cheese) in a brown paper sack. But mostly I pack lunches because my children don't really like the food in the school cafeteria.
More important, when I pack their lunches I can at least imagine that I know what they're eating during the day, trading at the lunch table notwithstanding.
It turns out school lunches are becoming just another avenue to justify government overreach.
We're all familiar with the National School Lunch (NSL) program, an entitlement meant to stave off hunger for low-income children so that they receive adequate nutrition during the school day. NSL is viewed simply as an extension of food stamps in which the delivery of benefits takes place at the point of consumption.
Children who qualify for NSL go through the lunch line, choose their food and eat. Those who don't qualify for NSL go through the same lunch line, choose the same food, pay for it, and then eat.
In Louisiana, there apparently has developed a significant problem: Parents who are able to afford school lunches (i.e., they don't qualify for NSL benefits) often don't send in the money to pay for their children's meals.
Now, forgotten lunch money is not a new problem. There isn't a school in America that doesn't have a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter on hand for a child whose lunch money sits, forgotten, on the counter in the kitchen at home.
But in Louisiana, a new statute that took effect last week now requires schools to provide a lunch or snack to children whose parents fall three days behind in lunch payments, and further requires school officials to notify the state's Department of Family and Children Services that parents are in arrears for lunch money.
The premise? Parents who habitually don't pay for their children's school lunches are potentially neglectful in other ways. They may be alcoholics or drug addicts. They may be abusing their children at home. You never know.
Falling at least three days behind in lunch payments is just the excuse the state needs to investigate.
Obviously, Louisiana isn't looking at this as a collection problem. If it were, it would have instituted any number of convenient ways to automatically collect funds from non-paying parents, such as a school-based debit account, or a payment program that charges lunches to a credit card.
The point is it's not about the money. It's about getting into people's homes and evaluating their parenting skills, and then imposing government control on parents and their children.
In a news article, the communications director for Gov. Bobby Jindal was quoted as saying, "The intention of this bill is to ensure that children are not denied meals while at school. However, the part of this bill that includes reporting to [Department of Social Services] needs to be amended to line up with current law, which mandates school administrators to specifically report cases of child abuse or neglect."
Reporting parents to the government for possibly neglecting their children is a serious and extreme step, and not one that ought to be triggered by delinquent lunch money.
Because the next step will be to open those brown paper sacks some of us are sending from home to decide, based on what's in them, who else ought to get a call from the government.
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JWR contributor Marybeth Hicks, a wife of more than 20 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. To comment, please click here.
© 2009, Marybeth Hicks