Public schools, kids, and food: We’ll serve everyone except the poor and hungry

Photo credit: WiredNewYork.com

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty once embodied what made America, America: Looking out for the lesser. Much like that sentiment, those charged with educating and nurturing America's children are required to abide by a 'See something, say something' law. That is, we are required to report suspected abuse and neglect of children. Over the last several years, we've seen individuals, school leaders, and districts do a 180 on this policy. Cafeteria workers have been reprimanded or fired for making sure kids get a hot meal, even if they can't pay for it. And now students are being arrested for “stealing” food for which the federal government has already paid.

Whether it was the cafeteria worker in Denver who gave a free lunch to a child who forgot her lunch money, or the one who gave a lunch to a student who couldn’t afford the reduced-priced meal, or even the one who quit because she refused to take away a hot meal from a student whose lunch account was past due, we have a serious problem. Our education system has become so obsessed with attendance percentages, graduation rates, and test scores that some folks have forgotten that we are working with kids. Human beings, with needs and feelings. A dude named Maslow wrote about it years ago and it’s still relevant today: If our basic needs are not met, it’s highly likely we won’t feel safe or thrive in an environment. I’d even go out on a limb and say that, only by acknowledging those needs and implementing appropriate interventions/programs, will we be able to chip away at the Opportunity Gap.

The latest food fiasco happened at a Prince William County school, where a high school student was arrested and charged with larceny over a .65 carton of milk. According to the student, he forgot to grab his milk when he went thru the lunch line the first time. Instinct kicked-in, so he doubled-back and grabbed his milk. That’s when a simple oversight turned into a life-altering experience for him. The student was approached by the school’s security guard, who told him to report to the principal’s office. Of course, the student refused because he explained that he did not steal the milk. The situation escalated and now the student is a facing a serious charge and a possible lifetime of interactions with police.

As a former teacher, let me present a few reasons why I completely believe this student's account and how this incident will negatively impact him and his family:

1. Kids start school way too early. They are not fully functional at 7AM, much less a few hours later and typically only get 25-30 minutes for lunch. With the time it takes to leave class, put books in the locker, and wait in line for lunch, someone's bound to forget something because they're rushed.

2. This young man was singled-out and embarrassed in front of his classmates by a security guard, over a .65 milk. If he didn't have a negative view / relationship with law enforcement or other authority figures before that day, he does now.

3. He now has an arrest record, which means he is in the (juvenile) criminal justice system. If his family can't afford a lawyer, he'll likely be assigned a public defender who will encourage a plea deal.

4. His mother will have to miss work to deal with all the legal proceedings associated with this incident. Since he receives free lunch, it's safe to assume his mother does not earn a lot of money. I personally know that struggle. More pressing: Missing work often means decreased pay, if not termination, and exhausting any accrued PTO. This keeps the cycle of poor school performance (due to missed days and negative interactions), involvement with the criminal justice system, and poverty going.

Despite all of those facts, the one thing that really bothers me is the simple fact that the federal government pays for the student's breakfasts and lunches. Every single day of the school year.

Chew on that.

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