Recently, in Fargo, a group of well-meaning people raised some $4,000 as a way to help address the roughly $30,000 in school lunch debt accumulated in the local public school system.
What these folks did is commendable. This sort of altruism, which has been making headlines both in North Dakota and across the nation, isn’t the solution to the school lunch debt problem.
Parents need to be responsible for paying for their kids to eat.
To be clear, the kids should always get to eat, no matter the status of their school lunch account. They shouldn’t have their lunch thrown in the garbage if they can’t pay. They shouldn’t get a sort of scarlet letter stamped on their hands. They shouldn’t get some lame alternate meal, or be blocked from extracurricular activities, or threatened with foster care.
A kid who gets in line for a school lunch should get that lunch.
The parents, though. I’m concerned about letting them off the hook. We already have a problem with some parents abdicating their responsibilities to the schools when it comes to things like discipline. Educators I speak to tell me problem parents run the gamut from the merely disengaged to those of the belligerently-expressed opinion that the schools are responsible for raising their kids.
These are very real problems in our society, and they’re only going to get worse the more we let parents off the hook. Including when well-meaning people pay off school lunch debt.
Financial hardships are what they are, and they can happen to anyone, but we should remember that paying for school lunch isn’t that hard. Even at full price, the cost is a just few dollars a day. A family of three in North Dakota, with a household income below roughly $40,000 per year, can also qualify for free or reduced meals. If anyone in the household is already qualified for a program like SNAP (food stamps) or TANF (welfare), qualifying for free or reduced school meals is automatic.
With just a modicum of effort, in-need families can get help paying for school meals directly from the government. Beyond that, there are all manner of private groups through organizations like churches and non-profit organizations that may help pay for a school lunch bill.
It is up to parents to seek out and get this help. If they’re not doing it, if they’re instead letting school meal debt accumulate to the point where their kids might not get to eat (even as they’re likely spending the money they do have on lesser priorities), should we let them off the hook by just paying that debt for them?
Again, the kids should get to eat. They’re kids. They’re not responsible for this stuff yet. If the taxpayers end up covering that cost, so be it. The expense is not so much that we need to let kids go hungry, and feel shame, for want of paying it.
But the parents? They should be responsible for the debt.