Each year the end of school brings a day of reckoning - not just for kids on the verge of flunking, but for the school lunch program.
As the last few days of school draw to a close, inevitably some of the lunchroom books are out of balance. Dozens of children enter the final week with unpaid food bills.
The charges often remain unreconciled and all taxpayers eventually cover the tab when schools, forced to decide between feeding the child on credit or being branded as meanies for "making" a child go hungry, err on the side of compassion.
This year the school system is contemplating moving as much as $30,000 out of the general fund to pay for lunch debt in the county's nearly $9 million nutrition budget, which is supposed to be self-sustaining. That's slightly higher than the 2008 deficit, which the schools whittled down somewhat by nagging non-paying parents.
"We'll have some schools collecting on those lunches well into the summer," says Jane Wiggins, director of School Nutrition Services.
While an ideal policy would be to not let the debt pile up in the first place, that's tougher than it sounds.
It's simplistic - and hard-hearted - to insist children go hungry if they don't pay. That just punishes the child for having slacker parents. Conversely, feeding children on credit gets those parents off the hook for their irresponsibility.
Holding parents responsible must be the focus. The schools ought to be more hard nosed, and they already have a model to follow: The law requires schools to report frequently absent students to juvenile authorities; after enough absences, parents can be hauled into court for failing to have their children in school.
Failing to provide food for their children, or money for those children to buy food, is no less irresponsible. Such parents should be reported for neglect. Likewise, the school system shouldn't be shy about filing charges against parents who rack up big bills. A visit from the cops might do wonders for coughing up that missing lunch money.
The message that must be sent by all this is that school nutrition is a valuable service, but parents are still responsible for making sure their kids are fed.
After all: No one would send their child to the counter at McDonald's with empty pockets and expect him or her to get a Happy Meal on credit.
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