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Big Brother in the Cafeteria?

"We’re making sure that as they’re leaving the lunch line that the menu items they’ve selected match up with state law, so they’re selecting a meal that has all the basic [components] of good nutrition,” said school district spokesman Jarrett Peterson. “We’re not tracking what each individual child eats.”  (article)

No, not tracking what he EATS.  Just what he BOUGHT.  Just the things, aside from the twice-cooked broccoli, he almost certainly DID eat.

YES, your local school is issuing "PIN" numbers to each child, just like Mom and Dad have for their ATM cards.  Actually, this has been going on in our district since Patrick was in kindergarten, and he's a junior in high school now.  I always knew they could pull up records on everything the child bought forever and ever ago, but I always thought that this was so that Mom and Dad would know what their child is eating at school and how the money is spent.

We wound up owing something along the lines of $60 for G's french toast and waffle breakfasts for a while there.  HOW did we know this much money was being spent?  The deadbeat "pay up on your account" letter that showed up in the mail sorta gave us a clue. I called the cafeteria manager and she was *so* nice and *so* happy to talk to me. 

Oh, yes, he LOVES french toast breakfast the best, she'd tell me.  And he sometimes gets an extra serving of pizza or ice cream.  She knew far more about my child's eating habits than I did, tell you what.  Here for about a month I'd wonder why half his lunch came home uneaten and he'd refuse to eat dinner if it were something that wasn't his favourite.

I was downright mad.  Mostly at G.  But partly at the fact that in the old days, you'd buy a lunch card and they'd punch that puppy when you bought a meal.  NO WAY you could charge up $75 without Mom and Dad knowing.  Don't have money?  No food for you, boyo!  And they'd add that little social stigma feature by giving the free lunch kids a different colour card than the rest of us, remember those days?

I WANT to be able to have a lunch account if it could be managed properly.  There have been a few rare occasions here and there that I've been in the hospital or run out of bread... perhaps two or three times per school year.  Though in G's case, to my mind, it would be ok for the kid to skip a meal and come home and eat because he has LOST TRUST at home in regard to the account.  It would be a natural consequence.  

But here's the thing:  no matter what I said to the school about his having lunch packed every day,  they wouldn't ever deny a child a meal if he came through the lunch line and wanted one.  The teachers refused to take on the task of checking to see if he had a lunch, and preventing him from ordering one if he did.  And get this:  EVEN IF YOU DON'T HAVE MONEY IN YOUR ACCOUNT, YOU WILL BE CHARGED.  Does it comfort you that they will "only" let the kid have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if your account has a negative balance?  It doesn't do too much for me... because they charge the full lunch price for the sandwich.  Why wouldn't you give the kid the better meal for the same price?  Profit, I'm thinking.

Easy to say "just charge the kid if he eats lunch," but at $2.30 PER DAY, and his earning $1.90 after tithe PER WEEK, you can see where this is going.  Even my *trying* to put a lock on my thin child's account aroused some suspicion.

So I suppose I could check the account EVERY DAY, because I have nothing else to do, or I can train G to do a better job at self-regulation.  Let's just say we're working on it.  But at 15, he's still autistic, he still has an IEP and he still is pretty well functionally illiterate.  No fair complaining that my homeschoolers can't tie their shoes if my publicly-educated child CAN, but can't read the shoebox they come in.  (Just saying.  We all have different abilities, ok?)  So his self-regulation difficulties and his IEP would make for a good argument that SOMEONE ought to ensure that he isn't racking up a huge cafeteria bill for breakfast when he ate at home, and lunch when he has a perfectly good peanut butter sandwich in his bag.  It's maddening.

Here's where I'm coming from:  if you're on the free lunch program, you're accepting some oversight into what your child is eating at school.  And if they want to track you, tough noogies.  Don't like it?  Don't eat "free" food.  But those of us who are paying out of pocket do NOT need our information tracked at the state level.  That's just wrong. 

I'm wondering if the children in the article cited above are on the free lunch program.  Yes, it makes a difference.  It sure sounds as though these parents aren't going to keep their children away from eating the lunches as I do, so it's a suspicious situation in my mind.  Hellooo, parents, "free" really isn't free. 


  1. What a ridiculous system! What child would choose to eat a pre-packed healthy lunch if they can swipe a card and eat pizza and ice cream everyday??? And how can the district allow this?? Where is the parents input?? Things like this truly disgust me. These are children, and children do not make good choices, this is why they aren't allowed to drive at age 12, or drink alcohol at 7, or have a credit card at 14. So, give them a card for 'free' (seemingly) goodies and see if they can resist the temptation? How foolish.

    As much as I despise the knuckle draggers in my district, I have to give them credit in this arena. For lunch programs, each child is sent a monthly menu and the parents circles the days the child will be buying and attach the appropriate amount to the menu and send it back. The menus are issued two weeks in advance, so you have two weeks to pay for that month. If the menu isn't returned with the money, or a blank menu with no circled foods...the lunch ladies call and clarify with the parent how the child is eating that month. If a child forgets lunch, they are given pbj and an apple, milk and a other choices.

  2. Ahhh... I don't think they're "given" it at all. Bet you Mom IS on the hook for the bill, but at least this way, it doesn't reward the child with super-yum pizza, french toast and ice cream.

  3. What would happen if you got all this in writing - that he was no longer authorized to charge meals, and then just didn't pay it? Ever?

    Ah well, that's the sort of thing I would fantasize about, then realize it is not really plausible because if they decide to, they could put a black mark on your Permanent Record (credit report), and that's not worth $75 of pizza.

    So yeah. I got nothing'.

  4. I just have a really weird & totally irrelevant question. Why peanut butter sandwiches when peanuts in those with allegies can cause death? Why wouldn't they choose a safer alternative? Sorry, not American, no idea how your system works, but PB is banned out here along with *nut snacks* to just hand out randomly because of the allergy thing.

  5. A couple times a year at my school all of the teachers are given each student's account for them to take home to their parents. Some of the parents are told they owe hundreds of dollars for lunches their kids bought. But a lot of these kids bring their lunches.

    And of course, every child is entitled to a free lunch and a free breakfast. As soon as dinner becomes an entitlement, my kids can live at school. I will send sleeping bags and a change of clothes.

    Parenthood is so outmoded.

  6. Went round and round with the elementary school cafeteria lady when my oldest was in school. I was a single mom then. I dropped her off at daycare early; I paid the day care mom to feed her breakfast. But, she couldn't go in to the cafeteria and talk to her friends in the morning unless she paid for a meal. So, she did -- chatted -- and threw it out. At the beginning of each month I sent a check to the school that would cover her lunch fees for that month. I got a note saying I owed the school over $100. The school planned on feeding her peanut butter sandwiches and a milk at lunch until I paid up. Oh, and they wouldn't give me her report card.

    So, the nice lunch lady could tell me how often she was paying for a meal... what was being served but she couldn't make an annotation anywhere in the system that I was no way, no how paying for her to throw out a breakfast at school so that she could chat with a friend. Their answer? I was supposed to fill out a form for free and reduced lunches. Uh, I was making over $70,000/year and supporting just her and I. I could afford to pay for her to throw out her breakfast... I just thought it was teaching her poor spending habits.

    Couldn't believe a child was given free reign of her meal account that way.

  7. Wow, what a cock-eyed system!
    I know here in Oz the teachers watch and comment on kids packed lunches but we only have tuckshops here, where lunch orders have to be paid in full before school or the kid misses out altogether.

  8. Deb, they hold the diploma and refuse to transfer records if you do that. Great way to hold your kid hostage.

    Ganeida, they are very adamant about certain rooms being peanut-free, but honestly, they couldn't care less about the health of those children. Peanuts are super cheap here (I don't think they have peanuts growing there, or peanut butter, even... I could be wrong, but it's expensive, true?) and they'd rather serve up a lunch that costs them 60 cents than 1.90 if they're charging $2.30 or $2.95 (depending on school) for it.

    Harry! That's incredible!! And there were no phone calls, no warnings?? ARG!

    Julie, the kids KNOW they have free reign too. The thing is, the schools make a lot of money by stating this is a parent responsibility thing. Yep.

    Ro, the government here makes it impossible for schools NOT to have these cafeterias. They mandate that if a certain percentage of children qualify for free lunch, that they can't just not have a cafeteria.

    It's maddening.

  9. They need to switch to Japanese style. The kids eat in the classroom, they all get the same delicious, nutritionally balanced food, and the kids help serve it and clean up after. Good grief. And, what ever happened to the good old fashioned way of pay up front or get nothing? I think it's all a scam devised by the credit card companies - teach them the "just charge it" mentality in school while their still using mom and dad's money!

  10. Oh dear. Not good. It is wrong. I hope somehow you can get through to them on some sort of level???

  11. Check your email, Mrs. C

    And yeah, the lunch system is ridiculous. Seems ironic given that the system is always telling us they know beter than we do what's best for our kids.

    Didn't they hear the first lady is waging war againxt childhood obesity?

    As for the parents getting the bill, one has to wonder that they didn't contact you long before the bill was over $20, let alone $50 or $75.

    The silliness is mind-boggling!

  12. What a disaster! My son is in 2nd grade and they have to say whether they packed or are buying when they arrive each morning. Since my son wouldn't eat anything they serve, it hasn't been an issue with us.

    Just curious, can't you come up with an IEP goal with supports until he masters it that would provide the oversight from another direction?

  13. from M by email:

    This is just unbelieveable to me! No child should be allowed to charge things (even food) without his parents' knowledge if his parents have to pay for it! As you said, what if the parents don't have the money to pay for it? Also, I pack lunches for my daughter, and if they aren't to her and the other kids' liking (pizza or chips) she tells me she throws it away and begs food from other kids. She refuses to eat healthy foods at home, too.


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