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No free lunch

(article, Stephanie Beechem)

In 2006, parents of elementary-school children in Chula Vista, California, owed the district more than $300,000 for school lunches. Imploring letters and collection agencies had no result. So the district introduced an “alternate meal” plan, in which any child with a lunch debt of $5 or more was fed with a cheese sandwich rather than a full hot lunch.

The alternate meal — a slice of American cheese on untoasted whole-wheat bread, plus fruit and milk — was nutritionally sound by government standards, but hardly popular with the kids. Other California districts began to copycat the policy, offering debtors’ children peanut butter and crackers for lunch.
	
The plan worked: Children complained, and Chula Vista's $300,000 debt dropped to $67,000. In North Carolina, in the Johnston County School District, the lunch debt was erased completely. 

But then came the backlash. Chula Vista parents protested that the “sandwich kids” were ostracized; many of the cheese meals ended up uneaten in the trash. And given the small individual debts per family (many parents owed less than $10), some were outraged that their children were suffering over, well, crumbs.

Administrators responded that if parents were being vigilant and taking responsibility for covering their children’s costs, kids wouldn’t have deal with the problem.
	
On his blog, politician and 2008 Presidential candidate John Edwards has chastised schools for punishing children for their parents’ debts. But the bigger question, of course, is this: Why aren't all aspects of education — everything from teacher salaries to textbooks to lunch programs — better funded? In the 2007 fiscal year, the Department of Education’s budget inched up by a mere 1.3 percent from 2006 — the smallest growth of any individual department.

Isn't it time to give kids not just cheese sandwiches, but a bigger slice of the pie?