The economics of school lunch

A student eats a school lunch

KAI RYSSDAL: I was a brown-bagger when I was a kid. Usually brought a sandwich and chips to school for lunch. Most of my friends, though, were the hot lunch kind. Their moms gave them a buck or two and they ate the daily cafeteria special. It doesn't quite work that way any more. In some public schools today kids are showing up empty handed and hungry. And that's leaving lunchrooms in the lurch. Here's Alex Cohen.


ALEX COHEN: It's lunchtime here at Bastrop Middle School in Central Texas. A cashier rings up each lunch and tells students how much is left on their tab.

Just like public schools across the country, the food services department here is an independently run non-profit business — their budget is separate from the school's. So when a kid's account runs dry in Bastrop, it's food service director Albert Gaines' problem. He says at first he'll give a child two opportunities to "charge" a meal.
ALBERT GAINES: If at the end of the year those charges are not paid, they carry over to the next year. It stays on there.

Gaines says after two charges, his cafeteria does what a lot of others do. Students get a barebones meal of a peanut butter or cheese sandwich. Then, Gaines sends a note home to parents.

GAINES: We print it, give it to the teacher, the teacher then puts it in the backpack. Then the student has to take it home, take it out of the backpack, and give it to the parent. So there's a lot of area for . . . miscommunication we'll say.

Some parents just can't remember to pay the lunch bill, others just can't afford it. As of this morning, Dawn Hurley's daughter Georgia had a negative $1.85 balance on her meal account. Hurley has less than $20 in the bank right now. That means she can't get anything from the ATM.

So she hit up her daughter's piggy bank

DAWN HURLEY: This is supposed to be her college fund, but we're digging into it to make sure she can eat in the cafeteria for the last two days of school.

Hurley says cash has been tight since she's been staying home to care for the toddler she holds on her hip. She says her daughter's meals don't cost much, but they have a lot of other expensesa€¦

HURLEY: We have car payments, over $300, car insurance on two cars, and then there's always something going on with Georgia's school because the schools just don't get enough money so the parents have to help out with everything that happens.

As the cost of living increases for everyone, lunch debt is on the rise . . .

MARY HILL: We see it as a growing problem across this country.

That's Mary Hill, vice president of the School Nutrition Association which represents school cafeteria directors nationwide. For some lunchrooms, the outstanding balance is just a few hundred dollars. For others it's hundreds of thousands. One school board in Tampa, Florida went so far as to authorize the use of a collection agency.

But, Hill says, teachers and cafeteria workers will often pay out of pocket to make sure a child doesn't go hungry.

HILL: Because they believe that that is a part of the total growth in school and that students need that nourishment in order for them to be successful in the classroom.

What's really needed, she says, is a long-term solution, ideally providing government subsidized lunches for every child.

But to start, Hill and other food service directors have asked Congress to change the nation's reduced lunch program. That program currently allows nearly 3 million low-income students to eat at a cost to parents of 40 cents per meal. Instead, Hill says, let those kids join the nearly 15 million others participating in the federally subsidized FREE lunch program.

HILL: And of course when you look at what we're asking for they say it's not a very cheap venture but a very worthwhile venture.

Several lawmakers have asked for about $29 million to try phasing out reduced price lunches in favor of free lunches in five states. So far, Congress hasn't approved the funding.

I'm Alex Cohen for Marketplace.

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