Rep. Siegrist has introduced House Concurrent Resolution 3 concerning the practices of schools with respect to overt identification of students who receive free and reduced price lunches. The resolution urges the legislative council to study the issue of how to reduce overt identification of these students. It’s not terribly surprising that students (like anyone) perform better when they’re well fed. The problem this resolution seeks to address is that it’s embarrassing to be the poor kid who needs government assistance for food. As a society, we’re way too quick to assign a moral value to poverty or wealth — poverty as evidence of the absence of moral fiber and wealth as evidence of probity. But, even if you subscribe to the economy-as-morality-play view of life, it’s tough to blame a kid for the fact that his or her parents are poor. So, school lunches should be one place where we generally don’t mind trying to make sure the kids are fed and don’t mind trying to make sure that they don’t feel bad if they need financial assistance to make that happen.
The resolution notes:
Whereas, Students would often rather go without an adequate meal than be identified by their peers as being a free or reduced price lunch student; and
Whereas, Although overt identification is prohibited under state and federal law, it often unintentionally occurs in schools, either causing students to skip meals they need to be academically successful or to feel shame for accepting a public benefit;
It goes on to note that the federal government has developed a best practices guide that, among other things, helps avoid inadvertent overt identification and argues that state-level study could build on this federal study to “further reduce overt identification, increase the use of free and reduced price meal benefits and, ultimately, to increase the health and performance of Hoosier students.”
Sen. Stoops has introduced legislation on a similar topic. SB 314 would specifically require schools to provide meals to students even if they owe money unless the student’s parents has specifically asked them not to. It would prohibit schools from requiring a student to dispose of the meal because they owed money. (This is presumably related to reports that some schools would make kids dump their lunch trays if it turned out they couldn’t pay for them.) If a student gets more than four meals into debt, it instructs the school to take specific measures to try to get the kid signed up for financial assistance, if appropriate, and reach out to the parents to see what’s going on. It prohibits the school from publicly identifying or stigmatizing a student who is unable to pay for a meal or has a meal debt, and it prohibits schools from making kids work off the debt.
It’s probably the old debt collector in me, but it seems to me that it might also be appropriate to give schools some additional tools for debt collection against the parents (e.g. allowing addition of attorney’s fees and collection costs if they don’t respond to demands for payment or requests for financial information). I’m all in favor of erring on the side of feeding kids. I’m on record as saying that if we, the public, end up feeding a few extra kids, I won’t be that bothered:
But, I’m just an old softy because, at the end of the day if extra kids get fed with taxpayer dollars, I’m kind of o.k. with that. Because, you know, feeding kids — even kids who are from families that are lower middle class instead of poor — is not the worst way to spend tax dollars.
That said, these meals do cost money. And schools don’t have a ton of that money. Many families simply don’t have enough to make ends meet or, if they do, are living right on the edge. We should not be reluctant to feed kids from those families. But, there are inevitably some parents with sufficient resources who are simply neglectful of their children, and some thought should be given to what recourse schools might have against neglectful parents.