Sunday, May 29, 2011

Free School Meals: Necessity or Abuse?

It's 2 AM. And while it's not the dreaded 4 AM, I still can't sleep. Since I don't have to study (woohoo!), I figured I'd write!

An acquaintance on Facebook recently posted a link that states for the 2011-2012 school year, Walmart will feed every child that attends a Dallas Public School a free breakfast. The initiative is called "Breakfast in the Classroom". The Dallas Independent School District (DISD) is one of only 5 major school districts in the country chosen to share a 3 million dollar Walmart Foundation Grant that funds the program. The link above lists a myriad of reasons why a good breakfast is so important to a student's productivity in school, and I agree wholeheartedly with every one.

For the 2009-2010 school year, just over 80% of students enrolled at my daughter's elementary school were eligible for free/reduced breakfast and lunch. Of that number I am unsure just how many participate, but the Breakfast in the Classroom link states nationally less than half of those eligible for free breakfasts (doesn't specify lunch numbers) currently take advantage.

I love how the Walmart website states that students will "enjoy nutritionally well-balanced foods like breakfast wraps, yogurt, or fruit.." Yet this local Dallas news video link shows them eating fast-food-looking pancakes with syrup, orange juice, and what appears to be chocolate milk. But the vagaries of what they will serve is actually not what I'm writing about here today.

This can be a touchy subject and please read (and believe) my words - I know there are families/children in the Dallas area that are in desperate need of this kind of help. Walmart is providing a huge service to those families, and in turn to DISD so the school system (i.e. taxpayers) doesn't have to foot the bill. In theory it's a win-win, the private sector helping the public sector. What I have a problem with are parents taking advantage of the system and getting free lunches for their children when they have no need (breakfast has now been taken off the table for this discussion since Walmart's backing that in our city). It all comes down to priorities.

I personally know children that receive free lunches from the state/federal government that have iphones, ipods, excessively large flat screen TVs, and every gaming system/game/and DVD on the planet. And I don't mean the parents have these things - I mean the children! There is no way around it - it is completely unethical. Obviously I'm not talking about those families with a true need, but there are numerous instances - at my child's school, let alone all of the schools - where the parents choose not to buy good, healthy food for their children in favor of electronics and the newest gadgets.

In January we joined the Urban Acres organic food co-op. I had wanted to do this for a while, but $50 every two weeks seemed like an awful lot to spend on fruits and vegetables. Let me tell you folks - it is a steal. Every other Saturday I receive over 30 pounds of fresh, completely organic, in-season fruits and vegetables. Our family of five has never once been able to finish it all before the next pick-up. My kids eat at McDonald's probably twice a year - and it's usually while we're on the road heading to and from the east coast. I can assure you that many of the families claiming a need for free lunches spend $100/month on fast food when they could spend it on organic, nutritious food - and not use the government's money to feed their kids.

I guess some would say my 12, almost 11, and 4 year olds are deprived. None of them have a personal phone. None of them have an ipod. None of them have a gaming system - either personal or family-sized. We don't even have a TV! When the economy tanked in late 2008 we did what we had to to survive. We moved from a 3000 square foot house to a 1500 square foot rental to the 1000 square foot home we currently own. My three kids - gasp! - shared one room for the first two years we were in this house! My two oldest children even received free lunches from February 2009 through May of 2009. And they were a godsend. However, while on these free lunches we weren't buying souped-up cars, any electronics, cigarettes (that now cost around $5/pack! - I remember when they were like $1.50!), etc., etc. It is all about priorities. Why should someone else have to pay for my child's food because I am unwilling to? Note I didn't say unable - those people need help for sure.

I was recently talking to someone (and for the life of me I can not remember who it was) who told me that when he was a boy (in the 1940s/1950s), families who were receiving monetary assistance from the state would get periodic unannounced home checks to make sure they weren't lying about their financial situation on paper. While I am not advocating for this - I do feel like it is a major invasion of privacy - I think alot of abuse of the system would be prevented this way.

I don't have all of the answers (or even any, really) needed to address this complex topic. However, I have a starting point for many families - as I've said, it's about our priorities.

P to the R to the I to the O to the R to the I to the T to the I to the E to the S! Get 'em, people!

Let's help those that truly need it, but take responsibility for our financial situation - and the basic nutritional health of our children - when we can. -Carrie


  1. You go girl. You are right on. Why don't you write an op ed for the NY Times? More people need to read this and wake up. It is all about responsibility and, as you say, priorities.


  2. Hi Carrie - It's brave of you to share your thoughts on this touchy subject, and open up the conversation. I have just a few comments.

    Everyone--regardless of socio-economic status--gets bombarded by the media through advertisements, reality shows, news stories and TV shows about what constitutes the American Dream. Some are able to resist this bombardment--like your family, and me to a lesser extent ;-)--while others are not. I would imagine that people on the lesser side of the socioeconomic spectrum feel so disenfranchised that it is very important to them to acquire those things that visually say "status." By saying this I am not justifying parents (or guardians) not providing proper nutritious meals to their children.

    "...there are numerous instances - at my child's school, let alone all of the schools - where the parents choose not to buy good, healthy food for their children in favor of electronics and the newest gadgets." Certainly I appreciate your frustration with a system that appears to not meet its true objectives--feeding truly needy children. However, the scientist in me is concerned with this statement because I think it will be difficult to back it with facts, unless a well-designed survey was conducted to support the statement.

    In the end, most* of us in the US have the freedom to live as we deem proper for us. Others may not agree with us. This is the tension of a democracy. I feel that tension too, especially when I see actions taken that seem detrimental to one's well-being, or that of their fellow humans.

    *Some have more privilege than others, which affects actual and perceived freedom. Privilege itself is a subject that is uncomfortable indeed.

  3. What Pigs Don't KnowJune 1, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You are right - I have no science to back up my statement regarding nutritious food verses electronics. It is just what I have observed firsthand. Of course I know they are all not buying electronics instead of food. But I agree with you that the bombardment of these "must haves" by the media makes it almost impossible to say "no"! Like I said, I don't have all of the answers, I just believe that proper nutrition is so important and in general "our" children aren't getting it. Thanks! -Carrie