When Forgetting Lunch Money Is on Your Permanent Record

Jeanne Sager

school lunchThe teachers always knew they could terrify us when they whipped out the "permanent record" threat. Miss Jones, if you don't stop passing notes in class, it will go on your record! Mr. Smith, if you don't pay attention, it will go in your file!

We were never exactly sure what the permanent record was, who kept it, or who would eventually get a list of each time we flicked a booger at the kid one desk over. But boy were we scared.

Consider it the Santa Claus of elementary school -- it just wasn't worth the risk of missing out on a bunch of goodies, or college, if it really did exist.

News flash, America, it does exist! And if you're a poor kid living in Louisiana, the state is holding on to the record of infractions -- notably listing each time you show up at school without your lunch money.

They're even spelling out the consequences -- three strikes in the Lafayette Parish School System, and your mom gets a visit from the Department of Children and Family Services.

And before you start crying about the unfairness of treating a poor Mom like a criminal, consider this: Lafayette is an area where more than 59 percent of the families are considered too poor to afford lunch. More than 50 percent of the kids in Lafayette Parish qualify for free lunch, another 9 percent for reduced lunch.

But since August, Lafayette Parish has served 15,745 extra free meals to kids who aren't on that program but who have "forgotten" their lunch money or brown bag. The school won't allow kids to charge their lunch if they forget, but they are required by state law to provide a lower cost option free of charge.

I can see how these costs pile up for a school district. I make my kid's lunch every day, and I'm putting real money into the bread and cold cuts alone -- and that's one child. One school district in Georgia last year put the cost of feeding kids who "forgot" their money at $200,000 in just one year.

Unfortunately, by removing the "charge" system, districts like Lafeyette have removed the ability to ever get money back for these free meals. So parents who are just making ends meet -- making enough that they don't fall under the free or reduced guidelines but not enough to make their bills at the end of each month -- have no real incentive to send lunch money.

They know if they send their kid with nothing, the school won't let them go hungry. But if they know their kids will be fed, it's hardly child abuse either.

Which is why the threat of the permanent record sounds a bit over the top in this economy. The last thing these poor kids need is an overzealous college admission officer noting "student X" forgot their lunch money 17 times during the 9th grade -- they're not responsible enough for this school. Perhaps parents can be billed first, allowed to set up a payment plan? Then the school can start tallying this sort of information on the child's record?

How does your school handle this problem?


Image via vorack/Flickr

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