Whose the parent?

As a product of the Chicago Public Schools, it was with great interest that I read this story yesterday. Go ahead, take a second, and read it…ok for those that don’t, the crux is that an elementary school in Chicago decided to ban homemade lunches. Yep, kids have two choices, eat the school provided lunch (slop) or eat nothing. Wow! Now I am not one of these anti-government folks but I will say reading this piece combined with having a kid in the local schools here in Maine have started to convince me that schools are moving away from their primary function….oh, educating kids to oh say parenting kids.

Now I will fully admit that I understand why schools are slowly moving from role of educator to parent, frankly there are plenty of parents that for whatever reasons simply are not able or available to parent. I see it all the time at my community center; we have kids who attend whose parents have actually told me that we (my staff and I) are the only ones that can get their kids to behave. Say what??? Kids constantly ask me why aren’t we open 7 days a week, ummmm because we like to have a life too.

It’s bad out there, I am not a teacher but due to the nature of my work I interact with teachers and other allied professionals that work with youth and most of us have never seen the apathy that exists within most families. So it only makes sense that teachers are willing to pick up the slack and add pseudo parent to their role…got to do what ya got to do.

Now let’s talk about the school meal program, I am of two minds, no kid deserves to go hungry. Plain and simple. Ideally everyone would have access to fresh, nutritious food that does more than add dense calories but to be honest with the current way that the school food programs are administered by the United States Dept of Agriculture, that’s hard to do. My community center for the past two years has participated in the Summer Food Service Program that is offered to community partners and schools so that kids’ at risk for going hungry will have access to meals.

My first year in the program, I had such high hopes thinking I might be able to partner with local farmers to offer the kids truly good food. Well it turns out the program, sets the guidelines for what you can serve and well its no longer a secret to me why school meals often look and taste like shit. The problem is not your local schools it’s the federal government, I repeat it’s the federal government. The schools are simply doing what they can at the cheapest price. See, school meal programs are woefully underfunded. The federal reimbursement rate is like a $1.80 for breakfast and $3.15 (can’t remember the exact figure so correct me if I am wrong) for lunch. Now I know you are thinking wait, that’s plenty of money to provide good meals. No, its not. See, that is all the money schools and agencies get that participate and that figure includes salaries, I mean the folks who cook/prepare the meal want to get paid. The folks that deal with all the paperwork are also fond of getting compensated too! It includes the cost of paper goods, ever noticed that most public schools use paper products? That’s because the USDA‘s regulations are so onerous that you are pretty much pushed into using disposable products. Of course these products cost money.

So now you can see why the lunches are not nearly as tasty or nutritious as they can be, I know my first year in the program I almost went over budget getting fresh fruits and veggies by year number two I realized that canned items could easily meet the “requirement” and ensure that I not go over budget. Shitty but its all about survival.

So back to the school in Chicago, sure they probably had kids making poor nutritional decisions but the truth is in more ways than one getting all the kids to eat the school lunch makes sense. More cash coming in to actually keep the cafeteria open and if it’s like my kids school where there is a shortage of space and time, it streamlines the process. If every kid gets a Styrofoam tray of food, it beats helping little Jenny open the thermos, and eat all the food their Mom packed.

Now the thing for me is when I was a kid in the Chicago schools starting in the late 1970’s, I never ever ate the school lunch. For starters my school had no cafeteria so the school lunch was a sack lunch that always looked bad…to this day I remember the peanut butter and jelly they offered on a graham cracker thing that looked like an ice cream sandwich. Yuck. I remember going to high school and even there once I had access to a cafeteria the fare looked so bad I remember begging my Mom to give me lunch money so I could eat outside the school. I actually remember taking the $1.50 she would give me for school lunch and just going off campus to a local eatery and getting Italian bread and gravy to eat rather than eating the slop the school served…that’s how bad the school lunch was and that was a long time ago!

The thing is the school that issued this mandate is in a lower income area where the truth is, it’s a lot easier to issue such proclamations. I mean you try that at a school that is solidly middle class and above and chaos will ensue. Then again even in middle income areas the schools are slowly trying to assert more authority over the kids which I suspect is part of the reason for the rise in homeschooling. Remember back in the dark ages when the only kid you knew who was homeschooled came from a fundamentalist Christian family? Kid always seemed sad and strange…but now? Homeschooling to some degree has become mainstream and in most cases the reasons I have heard for families choosing to homeschool has a lot to do with wanting to maintain a sense of control over their own kids. Wanting to ensure that the families’ values are what help to form the kids’ identity, etc. As I battle every week with some outside force that feels further and further away from our families values I will admit homeschooling sounds very attractive.

In today’s world it seems our kids are no longer ours and as parents we must decide how we want to handle that. Today it might be something as small as insisting we spend our money to feed our kids food we don’t eat but what will it be tomorrow?

2 thoughts on “Whose the parent?”

  1. From a class perspective I think this cuts both ways. On the one hand, it’s definitely patronizing and paternalistic of the school to announce that they are a more reliable judge of what’s good for students, and to an audience unfamiliar with that school in particular, it’s likely to reinforce for some people the awful stereotype of poor people as ignorant or negligent.

    But on the micro-level where the administrators undoubtedly understand that not all the families they serve have the resources to provide an ideal lunch, their decision to make this an across-the-board edict means that individual parents aren’t singled out for judgment.

    In my elementary school there was a boy who would eat anything our classmates had left over, and I very vividly remember my teacher telling us (when he was absent one day) that we shouldn’t judge him or tease him because sometimes he didn’t get enough to eat at home. Her intentions were good, but for many students in a pretty economically diverse school, it also drew the first line in the sand where class distinctions were concerned.

  2. It seems there is this constant tension for many schools and districts between providing for children what they’re not getting at home so they’ll do better in class and not overstepping their bounds. And you are very right that this kind of policy could only have been implemented in a low income school. In part because malnutrition is more prevalent among low income students, but also because, as you say, the parents would have been more indignant at a middle class school.

    I don’t tend to see this as a “writing on the wall” or hell-in-a-handbasket type of situation, though. Schools and parents need to work together to create good policies for the kids – that hasn’t changed, and that will continue to happen. It NEEDS to happen. No school gets everything right and then just remains perfect for years and years; same thing with parent and student communities – they are all constantly changing and need to stay in dialogue with each other. I think the school’s mistake here was to skip the dialogue with the parents (although, I wouldn’t be surprised if some parents actually did think it was a good idea). I’m also wary in situations like this of the vocal minority. I’d be interested to see what the actual pulse of the parent community is at that school; just because a few parents decided to complain doesn’t mean they represent the entire community, to be honest.

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