This announcement by Coast Representatives David Gomberg on the floor of the Oregon House of Representatives on Wednesday, February 26th.
Thank you Madame Speaker.
Last week, a woman in my district named Nell Ward did something remarkable. She walked into Newport Intermediary School and wrote a check to pay off the past-due lunch accounts of all students there.
On the Central Coast, two-thirds of our kids receive free or subsidized meals. Fully one-third live below the Federal poverty line. Ours schools send food home on weekends to make sure children come back Monday ready to learn rather than hoping to eat. I know many of your districts face similar struggles.
But what happens when lunch accounts are past-due? The answer is that across the state, in our largest and our smallest districts, students receive an “emergency meal”.
Instead of a hot entrée pizza or lasagna or a taco salad these kids get a cheese sandwich or are limited to the salad bar.
Let’s think about that for a moment. At the time when children are most struggling to fit in, we single some out. We send a clear message to the entire lunchroom that this child is different; poorer; lesser.
And not coincidentally, we’re placing a burden on the lunchroom staff that implements this stigmatizing policy. They have spoken to me of the stress of having to take food from students every day.
Now to be clear, I think parents need to pay their bills. And children need to learn responsibility at an early age. But I’m not sure a cheese sandwich is the answer.
Districts are not the bad guys here. After all, they are providing a free lunch. And many are proactively contacting families to remind them to pay, find other payment sources, or check to see if circumstances have changed and the student now qualifies for free meals.
But I think we can do better.
In my own district, after ten years of emergency meals, a decision was made that stepping back to prepare a special meal takes more time and costs more money than just handing the child an entrée. It probably also reduces food waste. So everyone gets a regular meal now and payments are addressed in other ways.
I hope our other districts will take a new look at the emergency meal program. Eliminating special meals is a win-win that saves money for the district, reduces stress on staff, and saves self-respect for children.
Singling kids out, stigmatizing them with what I call a “scarlet sandwich” is not the answer. It sends the wrong message. While well intended, looked at another way the practice is just plain mean.