Learning the value of a free lunch

June 3rd, 2015

My 11th grade history teacher had a poster on his classroom wall that depicted five fish swimming one behind the other. The fish increased in size from front to back, and each fish had its mouth open, ready to devour the fish in front of it. The poster’s caption: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” The point being that nothing much is truly free; someone has to pay for it.

It’s a valuable lesson; one I’m not sure we’re teaching much anymore. Perhaps you’ve heard about the school kitchen manager near Denver, Colorado who was fired last week for giving school lunches to students who didn’t have their lunch money.

Some of the details in the CBS story aren't completely clear. The anchor’s introductory words in the video segment suggest that the manager was paying for these lunches out of her own pocket. The article, however, seems to indicate that she was giving at least some of the lunches away without reimbursing the school.

There’s a huge difference between the two, but we’ll come back to that later.

First, let’s consider some facts. The recipients of these unauthorized free lunches weren’t the really needy kids. Those kids already qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. No, these were the kids whose parents make too much money to qualify for assistance ($45,000 or more for a family of four.) I’m not suggesting some of these families aren’t struggling financially, but they’re not in poverty. In most cases, I suspect there's no good reason for the kids not to have lunch money or a packed lunch.

I was raised by a single mom, and I qualified for free or reduced-price lunches until I was 10. When my mom remarried, we had to pay full price. My mom never let me leave the house in the mornings without lunch money or a packed lunch. Sometimes it was just a bologna sandwich or PB&J. The only time I remember being hungry at lunch was when I blew my lunch money on something else — like ice cream, baseball cards or comic books. And when I did, I paid the price by not eating lunch that day. It was a valuable life lesson for me. I learned how to prioritize and make choices. I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for credit (or a freebie) from the lunch lady.

To be fair, some of these kids probably have absent-minded parents or parents who qualify for assistance and haven’t filled out the forms yet. Others may be spending their lunch money on something else. Occasionally one or two may be giving it to a bully.

Whatever the reason, getting an unauthorized free lunch isn’t a solution to the real problem.

Am I being too hard on elementary school kids and their parents? Maybe a little. But keep in mind, in the Colorado school district in question, kids are allowed to forget their lunch money up to three times and still get a regular hot lunch. Even after the third time, they get a cheese sandwich and milk — into perpetuity. Certainly not a feast by any definition, but no kid is going to starve if they’re forced to eat it once in a while. It seems to me there’s a good bit of grace extended before anyone gets into cheese sandwich territory.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not down on school lunch subsidies. With all the money the government wastes on other things, school lunch programs are probably the last budget item that should ever be on the chopping block. 

Some school districts have even made a persuasive case for taking lunch programs a step further. Because of the stigma sometimes associated with receiving free lunches, these schools are now making lunch free for everyone regardless of income level. Although this is more expensive for taxpayers, some argue that dollar for dollar it’s money well spent, especially when one considers the costs of administering the financial part of a school lunch program and the potential landmines that can be encountered when students are all paying different prices. And some would suggest that since school attendance is compulsory, schools should provide at least one meal that’s free for everyone anyway.

But when the system is set up differently, everyone has to play by the rules, including cafeteria managers. If this lady wasn’t paying for all of those lunches out of her own pocket, then she was giving away something that wasn’t hers. That’s wrong. If you don’t like the rules, try to get them changed. And if you break the rules as an act of protest, be willing to face the consequences. (To her credit, the Colorado cafeteria manager owned what she did and was willing to lose her job over it.)

But even if she was paying for all of the free lunches, odds are she makes less money than many of the parents whose kids she was giving lunches to. Is it right for her to have to bear such a burden?

Besides, lunch money and allowance are two areas where kids gain experience managing finances. If the nice cafeteria lady is there to spot them with a free lunch every time someone drops the ball, are kids (or their parents) ultimately learning anything about real life? 

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