A couple of weeks ago, Leo, a freshman at East High School, carried a plate of spaghetti through the school lunch line. But the food service worker said he couldn't keep the food on his tray.
The money in Leo's lunch account had run out, and his "temporary meal status" had expired.
Leo left the line, but something compelled him to go back up. He asked what they were going to do with his lunch, and the woman said she had to throw it away.
"Can I just have it then?" he asked. But policy is policy. Leo's lunch went to the landfill.
Leo's brother Julian gave him some bread.
This story would upset me if I heard it about any kid. But Leo's my son, so I really couldn't shake the image. Mother mammals want their kids to be fed. I called the 9th grade office, and I called the Food & Nutrition office, and gave them both a piece of my mind.
They said they should have given Leo something to eat. Like more than half of the kids in the Madison school district, our kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch.
It happened again Tuesday. This time, he tried to get a hamburger, but his "status" only entitled him to a sandwich, milk and fruit. Leo waited five minutes for the sandwich. Then he gave up.
We messed up because we neglected to keep money in his account. (Even if your kids get free lunch, they still need money for extras -- like hamburgers, apparently.) But we had received a letter that very same day alerting us to the problem -- too late to fix it. And we were involved in a bureaucratic nightmare with BadgerCare over insurance coverage that distracted us from the school's paperwork needs.
By the next day, we had cleared it up. Leo did not suffer, except that I can't imagine it's fun for a freshman to ask – twice -- for his meal. Luckily, he had a good breakfast.
But it got me wondering how many other kids are having similar experiences. What if you don't have a computer to apply or you didn't get the letter because you had to move? What if you don't have the paperwork or tax forms to show that you are eligible? What about parents who don’t speak English as a first language?
Shouldn’t every kid get to eat?
A couple of months ago, I chatted with Bert Zipperer, former city council member and counselor at Sherman Middle School, which serves a lot of low-income kids. He told me the Boston schools announced in September that they were going to offer free breakfast and lunch to every child, eliminating all paperwork and means testing.
What if Madison took bold action like that?
Now Zipperer says the feds are considering eliminating applications for meals nationwide in schools that have more than 40% of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch. Here's democracy in action; you can comment online on that proposal until Jan. 3, 2014.
Kids are distractable enough. They don't need hunger holding them back from learning and achieving. If we're so concerned about achievement gaps, our community should take immediate action to make sure that no kid's lunch ends up in the landfill.
"Let's invest in all the kids, really invest, like the Packers would invest in a championship team," says Zipperer. "Let's just feed kids."