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Don’t let a bully take away your child’s lunch money

Lorie Schaefer
For the Nevada Appeal

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” – Nelson Mandela

I have to admit my dismay when I read in the Nevada Appeal (Aug. 8) that 36 percent of Carson City’s schoolchildren were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunches. I find it troubling and sad that Carson City’s economy doesn’t allow so many parents to provide a decent standard of living for their families.

Chuck Muth, of Citizen Outreach, saw it differently in his Guest Opinion titled “Dining on the taxpayer gravy train” on Aug. 8. He blames lazy parents and the government’s too-lenient poverty guidelines.

First, let’s get a little perspective. The tradition in Western society to provide meals to needy schoolchildren dates back to Germany in the 1790s. Schoolchildren in Germany, England, Switzerland and France who could not afford to pay, were given lunches because it was recognized – even then – that children who were hungry could not “take full advantage of the education provided them.” In fact, in 1900 Holland became the first country to adopt national legislation to provide school lunches.

As early as 1853, local communities in the United States began to feed schoolchildren as well. The cities of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles all had school lunch programs at the beginning of the 20th century. It took the United States a little longer to adopt the National School Lunch Act in 1946. That first year 7.1 million children participated. Today the National School Lunch Program subsidizes 30 million meals including 18 million for low-income children.

Not everyone who eats hot lunch at school gets a free lunch though. There are strict income guidelines that are quite different from the $100,000 quoted by Mr. Muth. The US Department of Agriculture’s Web site http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/ states that an annual income of $26,845 for a family of four would qualify a child for a free lunch. Not exactly lenient. Just for the record, two parents working full-time at minimum wage would make $26,208. Not exactly lazy.

Mr. Muth goes on to complain of the $69 million per year that we Nevada taxpayers are paying to support this “gravy train.” If you divide that among the 2.5 million people who live in Nevada, that works out to be $27.60 per person per year. About 53 cents per week. Heck, I can’t buy peanut butter and jelly for myself on that much money. And remember, the recipients are paying taxes too. Everybody does. For the sake of scale, the war in Iraq costs $177 million every day. (USA Today)

He also perpetuates the myth that these very wealthy poor folks are buying Nikes instead of Wal-Mart sneakers for their kids. As a kindergarten teacher, I saw many cute new pairs of sneakers stepping into my classroom, which often became part of that child’s “show-and-tell” for the day.

“Where did you get them?” someone would ask.

“Wal-Mart,” was the most frequent answer. The sad thing about Wal-Mart prices though, is that they aren’t as cheap as you might think. Because of Wal-Mart’s employment practices, those low prices are purchased at the expense of workers who must supplement their income by signing up for free or reduced lunch for their children. No free lunch? No free sneakers either.

The final argument Mr. Muth makes is that the government is hiding how many of these low-income children are illegal aliens or the children of illegals. First, the U.S. Department of Agriculture – not Immigration – administers the school lunch program. Second, the application process does not ask for citizenship status because Federal Law prohibits discrimination “on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability.” The lunch ladies of America are not in the business of checking the immigration status of 7-year-olds. Nor should they be. Their job is to feed hungry children.

Families on the fringe may be easy targets for Mr. Muth, but they are hardly fair ones. Maybe he should pick on someone his own size, like employers who consistently hire undocumented workers or refuse to pay a living wage.

In my 30 years in public schools, I have seen parents at every economic level doing their best to raise and care for their children. Nevertheless, parents can only give what they have. Because of working long hours, some parents lack time. Because of their own dysfunctional upbringing, some lack parenting skills. Because of low wages, illness or lack of education, some lack money. What parents don’t lack is love for their children or a desire to provide for them.

A free lunch seems like the least we as a society can do to help. The very least.

• Fresh Ideas: Personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Lorie Schaefer is a retired teacher.