Name: margalit
Location: Massachusetts, United States Professional writer, educational advocate, opinionated ultra liberal mother of 18 year old twins, living life in the slow lane due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, congestive heart failure, and diabetes.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Tales From the School Cafeteria

The ParentBloggers are holding a blog blast today, asking some lucky bloggers to post about their stories of school cafeterias. I could write about all the classic Jello fights we used to have in my high school cafeteria, where the cooks were dumb enough to serve Jello in little cubes. Perfect projectiles. I could tell you about my all time favorite part of high school, nutrition, where we could buy huge sweet rolls for a dime or buttered french bread slices for a nickel. I could tell you about the pizza/pasta day at my kids elementary school, where they served pasta with olive oil on it because none of the kids liked sauce. Of I could tell you about how, when I was in Junior High, we used to watch movies in our outdoor eating area when it rained. But the only movie they had was Bride of Frankenstein, which I've probably seen about 200 times. It's always a favorite!

But what I'm going to talk about is something a bit different. It's about how kids with reduced price or free lunches provided by the federal government Free Lunch Program are sometimes treated differently or outed as "poor kids" because of how the school cafeterias handle payment, and how I fought to change this.

When my kids were in elementary school, every child had an 'account' with a pin number. The kid would get his meal, go up to the cash registers, enter his pin number into the machine, and the amount would be deducted from the child's account. Parents would fill the account with money, and once it was getting low, the school would notify them to replenish the account. Kids receiving free or reduced price meals were charged exactly the same way, but of course there was no account. The pin number just registered how many free and reduced priced lunches were served. Obviously this was a fair and equitable system, and one that was very much appreciated by parents whose kids were being subsidized by the government.

When my kids moved up to middle school, this system was implemented as well, and again, kids receiving subsidized meals were able to get their food without being negatively identified. Their pin numbers enabled them to get lunch and breakfast quickly and easily.

However, when they moved on to high school, this system was not in place. The first year, when my son was the only kid in high school, he was required to give his name and show his student ID, and then the lunch lady would check off his meal on a large piece of paper with all the other subsidized lunch students. He was immediately identified as a "poor kid" in our very wealthy school district. If he didn't have his student ID, he was denied his meal. If the lunch lady didn't have time to look up his name, he was denied a meal. After a while, he gave up eating lunch and starting buying snack foods from the machines, with money he borrowed from friends. This obviously didn't sit well with me, and I began a campaign to change the way the school charged for lunches. At the time, there were no accounts that could be maintained by a parent credit card. Kids had to bring money each and every day to purchase lunch. Because the cafeteria had several stations serving salads, hot lunches, sandwiches and subs, and pizza, a kid getting a subsidized meal was restricted in their food choices. It was chaotic and a real mess most of the time. The cafeteria ladies wanted no part of trying to maintain some kind of order. It was easier to deny meals than to try and find a name on a list that was many pages in length.

When the new principal arrived this year, I immediately started my campaign to make this old system obsolete. What was most exciting to me is that the new principal not only agreed with me, he was actually shocked to learn that there was no account system, and set out to make the change almost immediately. This required getting new and expensive equipment, training the cafeteria workers on how to use it, and having kids receiving subsidized meals stick to the items that the government would pay for: entree, milk, fruit.

This required a training period for all the school, and the first couple of days were really a mess. My daughter's ID card wasn't on the right list, and she kept getting charged money for lunch. Her friends were paying, but it got really old really fast. She was very frustrated. But we got it straightened out within a week or so, and now every kid has an account. They swipe their student IDs into a card reader, much like an ATM machine, punch in their PIN number, and the account is debited. If a student has no money in their account, they can pay cash for their lunch. The system is now needs blind. No longer are subsidized lunch kids identifiable. This is a very good thing.

One last thing. Our school district has always been fairly conservative about junk food in school. The high school has ice cream, but no candy or soda machines. You can buy healthy snacks from the machines, like apples, dried fruits, granola bars, etc. The drink machines sell vitamin water, water, and juice. The school doesn't allow transfats, much of the meals consumed consist of salads at the salad bar, or sandwiches made to order. They don't have desserts other than ice cream bars that they pay extra for. They are not part of any meal plan. Because there is no little junk to be had, kids actually eat healthy lunches.

Freshmen are not allowed off campus, but older students can leave for lunch. Our high school is in the middle of a 50's suburban subdivision, and there isn't anywhere to go unless you want to make a long trek or have a car. But both the local Chinese and Pizza/Sub places deliver to the school, as does a Sushi place. Kids with plenty of pocket money can order their meals, wait outside for the delivery guy, and then eat their lunch in the cafeteria. It is actually cheaper for a few kids to go in on a pizza than to buy pizza slices at the cafeteria. My son, who is an upperclassman, sometimes treks over to the Chinese restaurant with his friends, and they share a good sized meal. But for the most part, my kids eat daily in the cafeteria where they are no longer identifiable as the "poor kids."

The Parent Blogger Network would like to call your attention to these two sites, that work together with School Food Services Directors to provide and promote healthy eating and physical fitness for kids and their parents. School Menu and Family Everyday are both sites that your younger kids can enjoy. School Menu has a lot of games for kids to play. This isn't for older kids like mine, but I'd guess that any preschooler to young elementary child will find plenty to entertain herself on this site. Everyday Family is geared more towards adults, with recipes, hints on diet and nutrition, and various fitness tips as well. It also has games. I found a good recipe on this site, and I'll probably check back often to see what's up and new.

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Blogger Daisy said...

Activism is a good thing. You did the right thing for your children and many others by getting involved and changing the system. Way to go, Mom!

6/6/07 4:40 PM  
Blogger A. Mayuzumi said...

Even without card technology, it would be possible (and is, many places) to have tokens. Some kids buy the tokens, some kids get them for free, but everyone pays at the point of the sale with the same anonymous scrip.

I agree with the above commenter, it was a good move. I'm always amazed at how much of the process of subsidizing this or that is designed to mark out the receivers, to put a stigma on. Having everyone the same not only removes the stigma, but often makes it more friendly for others in line, not to have someone in front with oodles of paperwork...

7/6/07 10:32 AM  

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