School Lunch Money Nazis Is Not a Real Problem: Just Feed The Kids!

The New York Times recently ran a tear-jerker about evil lunch ladies shaming children whose parents can’t afford a school lunch. In it, they cited a 2014 USDA report on school lunches–a nearly 200-page study for the 2011-12 school year–in which less than three pages were devoted to methods school districts use to recover costs for unpaid meals.

Misleading data

The “shaming” story relied on anecdotes culled from Facebook and local newspaper reports. It’s easy to find extreme stories like the third grader who had “I need lunch money” stamped on his arm. But do they represent some kind of lunch Nazi epidemic?

Based on the very report the NYT cited, no. The story reported, parenthetically, that about “45 percent [of districts] withheld the hot meal and gave a cold sandwich, while 3 percent denied food entirely.” That’s misleading, and not supported by the study.

It’s clear that only 1.3 percent of schools withhold a meal completely. Over 50 percent serve a “reimbursable” meal, which means they feed the kid and deal with the bill later. As for the “alternative meals,” the study relied on data from an outside source from 2008, and only provided examples such as “peanut butter and jelly” or “cheese sandwich.”

Truth is, we (and the NYT) have no idea whether the “alternative meal” is a cold sandwich but that looks better in print if your goal is imagery of a kid being shamed.

The onerous survey called “SNPOS” (Special Nutrition Program Operations Study”) sent out by the USDA to school lunch program directors is 42 pages long. It asks for all kinds of data. It doesn’t get into details as to what, specifically, happens when a kid doesn’t have lunch money. In fact, many school districts (13 percent by the survey) don’t even keep track at all.

Just feed the kids

Let me suggest that the best course of action is to not keep track and just feed the kids. Here’s why.

On average, SFAs recovered 31 percent (not shown) of the revenues initially lost from unpaid meals. Although less than half of SFAs with unpaid meal costs recover some of these lost revenues, the net revenues lost (i.e., after recoveries) is quite small compared with the total expenditures incurred by an SFA.

The average default rate on unsecured payday loans is 46 percent. That’s money the lender never gets back, meaning that the loan sharks recover 54 percent of the money they lend. They charge exorbitant interest to cover the losses. The average recovery rate for debt collectors is 16.5 percent, according to an industry group. The average collection rate of school lunch money debt is 31 percent.

Nearly 90 percent of lunch programs report that unrecovered lunch money amounts to less than 1 percent of expenditures. This is not a large problem. It is in fact, a tiny problem that’s not worth a whole lot of effort.

Just feed the kids.

I asked my own first-grader what happens when a kid in his school doesn’t have money for lunch. “Kids gotta eat,” was his reply. Even a first grader knows that kids need a good lunch to learn well. Our school doesn’t trash student lunches if they don’t have a balance–they eat a hot meal–but they don’t let the kids take from the snack display, so no extra cookies or chips. Fair enough.

According to No Kid Hungry, 13 million American children live in households “that lack the means to get enough nutritious food on a regular basis.” They are called “food insecure.”

59% of food-insecure households reported that in the previous month they had participated in one or more of the three largest federal food and nutrition assistance programs: SNAP (formerly food stamps), School Lunch and WIC.

I’ve heard first-hand stories of moms and teachers who donate food to kids who are unlikely to get a full meal after they leave school Friday until they return Monday. Our school district is not in a poverty-stricken area, so I can only imagine what goes on in East Los Angeles.

Lunch money isn’t the real problem

But I do know one thing: regardless of how many kids don’t have enough money for lunch, school districts shouldn’t do anything else if they don’t just feed the kids. Compared to L.A.’s biggest budget eaters, hungry poor kids is next to nothing.

By 2018, the district projects it will spend $1 billion on health care. By 2020, L.A. Unified’s obligations to the two state-run agencies providing pensions to its employees will gobble up one out of every $10 that flows into the district’s general fund.

The two funds that pay teachers pensions, CalSTRS and CalPERS, are two of the largest institutional investors in the country. The executives who run these funds make millions in salary and bonuses. At a few bucks (or even $1) to feed hungry poor kids, the liberals in L.A. and just about every other school district can afford to absorb the losses for unpaid lunches.

Honestly, most school districts already know this and simply deal with it. But liberals would love to make an issue of this by highlighting a few “shaming” instances to make it look like there’s a widespread problem with lunch money Nazis.

There really isn’t. But for those who think that kids should pay for their parents shortcomings (whether the parents can afford it and simply aren’t paying or genuinely can’t pay), you’re dead wrong.

Just feed the kids. Shame on anyone who does otherwise.

About the author

Steve Berman

The old Steve cared about money, prestige, and power. Then Christ found me. All at once things changed. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

I spent 30 years in business. Now I write and edit. But mostly I love. I have a wife and 2 kids and a dog and we live in a little house in central Georgia.

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