On Teaching Debt Collection To Kids, Or, Here's The Outrage Of The Week

There have been efforts in the past to teach “life skills” to students in the public schools, and of course among those skills is the lesson of financial responsibility.

I can imagine that these classes, especially for a student forced to take them first thing in the morning, can be like a daily session of discussing Hawley/Smoot in Ben Stein’s high school economics class. So, so dull that they make you nod your head in....zzzzzzz...

For some school districts, however, a more direct method of financial education has been employed-a method that will be our outrage of the week.

There is no question that the public schools are, financially speaking, stuck between a rock and a hard place; and just like a person living on a fixed income, every lost dollar hurts.

One form of “lost dollars” has historically been the money owed by parents for school lunches that are essentially provided “on credit”. Basically what happens is a kid might forget his lunch money that day, or a parent might have bounced a check for the prepayment of meals for the next month, and the school covers the money until they can collect the debt.

Now, debt collection is a highly regulated business. Federal law says you can’t just go around threatening violence to collect a debt, for example. State laws are even more restrictive: California says you can’t put a fake name on an envelope containing a collection notice or force a debtor to accept collect calls; New York says collectors are prohibited from:

“...communicating with you in a manner which simulates a judicial process or which gives the appearance of being authorized or issued by a governmental entity...”

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that schools would look for ever-more-creative ways to collect debts; but even considering all that I found myself shocked by this LA Times article entitled: “On school menus: cheese sandwiches, parental debt”.

The article describes the Chula Vista (a suburb of San Diego, California) Elementary School District’s “alternate meals” plan, which works something like this:

If a parent owes the district more than $5 in meal money, the district will send a letter home, put a sticker on the child’s hand, and eventually, hire collection agencies.

If all that fails, the district will basically...repossess lunch.
How is that possible, you ask?

Picture two second-graders in the cafeteria line. As they get to the yummy pizza, the first little girl gets her slice of pepperoni. But not the second girl.

She gets a cheese sandwich.

That’s right-this school district, and numerous others nationwide, have special school lunch “options” for those students who have parents that owe money-and in Calloway County, Kentucky, it only takes $3.00.

Life’s tough enough for a kid in school: the pressure to have the right clothes and shoes, the need to fit in, and above all-making sure you avoid being humiliated in front of everyone. Here’s a piece of the LA Times article:

“...The cheese sandwich, they say, has become a badge of shame for the children, who get teased about it by their classmates. One student cried when her macaroni and cheese was replaced with a sandwich. A little girl hid in a restroom to avoid getting one. Many of the sandwiches end up untouched or tossed whole in the garbage. Sometimes kids pound them to pieces...

...A year ago, he said, a cafeteria worker took away Christopher's pizza and forced him in front of his friends to pick up a sandwich instead. A similar incident occurred when Christopher was in the third grade. "The kid was humiliated," said his father, who added that he did not realize he owed money, $7.50...

...One Chula Vista third-grader, whose mother requested that the girl not be identified, said students sometimes ostracize the cheese sandwich kids, switching tables and talking behind their backs. "Some kids say they're not the kind of kids you want to hang out with," she said.”

There are a bunch of other reasons why this is a bad idea, and an explanation of why the tactic is popular below; but first, a required disclosure.

Those of you who are regular readers will recall two stories that I recently did about The Yes Men, and you may already be suspicious that this is the third.

If this were a missile silo, I’d be telling you: “This is not a drill”.
I have no surprise twist coming.
This is a real story.

Now back to the news...

When we left off, we had discussed the stigma that I contend attaches to a kid when they get the “special” sandwich (or the peanut butter and crackers, or whatever) and everybody else gets the pizza; but maybe I’m just overreacting in my assessment.

To be sure I’m not; let’s examine how others might view the practice.

Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services offers online information for foster parents, including a discussion of disipdiscussionline and punishment that offers these comments:

...”Punishment is defined as imposing external controls by force on children to change their behavior. It includes...Imposing suffering, for example by withholding food...Personal or emotional attacks like name-calling, ridicule, and insults...Many forms of punishment are against the law.”... (emphasis in original)

...”It's not hard to understand why parents sometimes want to use punishment. There are many reasons, including...

The misbehavior often stops immediately
Children often show remorse during punishment
The parent gets to blow off steam
The parent feels in control
The parent hasn't let the children "get away with it"
The parent was raised that way”

The Centers for Disease Control offers a score card to help elementary schools measure their “School Health Index”; and items 5 and 6 on the list of score card items are-you guessed it!-lunchroom related:

“N.1. Prohibit using food as reward or punishment
N.2. Fundraising efforts supportive of healthy eating”

The State of Wisconsin has intervened to prevent the practice of withholding food as a form of discipline in school settings, as reported by the Winona Daily News:

“The state has ordered a military-style private school to stop punishing students by serving them smaller lunches and is withholding money for food programs until the problems are corrected...

...The state has halted its share of the money for lunch and breakfast for low-income students until the La Brew Troopers Military University School stops withholding food as punishment, Helen Pesche, child nutrition program consultant for the state, wrote in a letter to the school dated May 21...

... The letter said that inspections at the school found students were sometimes punished by being served lunch without either meat or a substitute and a vegetable and fruit...

... A DPI report said one day when inspectors visited the school, 24 students were served lunches that did not include a sloppy joe on a bun and canned fruit, like their peers ate. Instead, the report said the children were given a slice of white bread, half a cup of mashed potatoes and a half pint of milk...

...Withholding food is unacceptable for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted program that subsidizes school food, the report said...”

The State of Illinois also frowns on this type of “food punishment”.
Consider this policy goal from kidseatwell.org's “evaluation tool” for Illinois schools:

“School personnel are encouraged to use nonfood incentives or rewards with students...and do not withhold food from students as punishment.”

Is this practice intended as punishment?
Here’s another quote from the LA Times, discussing what happened when peanut-butter-and-jelly was the “special sandwich”:

"It seemed to be one of the children's very favorite meals, so that wasn't productive," said Beth Taylor, nutrition director for the Johnston County School District in North Carolina, where such sandwiches were tried. Taylor said switching to vegetable and fruit trays changed everything. Among last week's menu items for students with lunch balances: crunchy cole slaw, fried squash and steamed cabbage. "The outstanding debt has been reduced to nothing," she said.”

Did everybody catch that admission by Ms. Taylor?
It was serving healthy food that turned the problem around.

Who thinks these kids will grow up to have eating disorders?
Who thinks opening a 24-Hour Fitness in Johnson County, North Carolina will pay off big one day?
Who thinks with policies like this in place buying stock in “Stroke, Inc.” or “Heart Attack & Co.” would be a great investment, if it were available?

With all that in mind, why would a school district pursue such a practice?
Because humiliation works.

The LA Times article reports that Chula Vista reduced its debt in this category by more than $230,000 from 2004 to 2006. Of 18,000 meals served by the District daily, up to 400 are of the “special sandwich” variety.

In its defense, Chula Vista points out that the “unlimited salad bar” is available to all students, but I suspect the salad bar does not reduce the impact of the “cheese sandwich equivalent” on the little kid to whom it is served.

Before closing, I want to offer one more learned opinion regarding the "food as punishment" idea. A learned Opinion that comes to us from the Unitred States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (the case originated in the eastern District of Wisconsin).

The Court has been called upon to offer an opinion as to whether food substitution is an acceptable form of punishment for prisoners in Wisconsin’s Secure Program Facility at Boscobel (a Maximum Security Facility, previously a Supemax). Food substitution means a “nutri-loaf” will be the only food offered during the period of a prisoner’s punishment, and the court found that the punishment was a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”.

To put all this in perspective, we have on the one hand a highly effective policy borne out of the school districts’ need to collect money; and on the other hand the opinions of Washington State’s foster parent educators, the Centers for Disease Control, the courts of Wisconsin and the nutrition educators of Illinois who all feel this is a terrible idea.

If all that wasn’t enough, we have a United States Court of Appeals that won’t even allow this type of punishment in a Maximum Security prison.

As we all know, kids have a ton of barriers in their way when they are being educated, and there is no good reason to create another one when the punished child didn’t even commit the “crime”. Just because...

...The misbehavior often stops immediately
Children often show remorse during punishment
The district gets to blow off steam
The district feels in control
The district hasn't let the children "get away with it"
The district was raised that way...

...doesn’t mean it’s OK to abuse kids who have little, if any, control over the “bad” behavior of their parents.

--crossposted wherever they'll have me...



The effectiveness doesn't override the despicable nature of this procedure.

And people wonder why parents are flocking to homeschooling in droves - WHY WONDER? The evidence of WHY is overwhelming.

I can't conceive a good reason to punish children because their parents are poor or forgetful.

How low have we sunk as a nation?

One day we will cry out for mercy and there will be no answer.

jay inslee...

...when discussing the bush tax cuts and their effect on the poor on the floor of the house, described the cuts as "beating a one-legged man with his own artificial leg".

this seems very much the same.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Kids vs. Prisoners

I have suggested to Kirk before that he run the prison menu next to the school menu. Even here in overly educated Orange County, we feed our kids junk. Okay, WE don't, but the school district does. I remember a series in some paper, somewhere I lived, at some point in time, that compared the local prison menu to the school menu. I'm not saying the prison menu's should be slashed, but just that our children deserve as much nutrition as felons.

I've read that school cafeterias are not allowed to have knives, for fear of what might happen, "just in case". How can a kitchen operate with no knives? Pre-packaged, prepared, schlock.

One man with courage makes a majority.
- Andrew Jackson

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

maybe if the kids...

...were willing to do work release we could "bump up" the meals...

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

the "apple/1984" commercial...

...is looking more real every day.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Not a balanced meal.

Besides using humiliation of children as young as 7 to get parents to pay their debts, which is, as Unique points out, despicable, the meal that was used in NC does not meat USDA guidelines for a healthy meal. These are the lunch or supper meal pattern requirements followed by every licensed child care program in NC who are between the ages of 1 to 12. They are based on the USDA Child Food Program. However, whether or not a particular child is eligible or not does not affect the pattern that their meal must follow. Every child is served the same thing (or the same choices.) If private child care can do this, seems like public school can as well.

Fluid milk 1/2 cup 3/4 cup 1 cup
Meat or poultry or fish 1 ounce 1 1/2 ounce 2 ounces
or cheese 1 ounce 1 1/2 ounce 2 ounces
or cottage cheese, cheese food, or cheese spread 2 ounces
(1/4 cup) 3 ounces
(3/8 cup) 4 ounces
(1/2 cup)
or egg 1 1 1
or cooked dry beans or peas 1/4 cup 3/8 cup 1/2 cup
or peanut butter, soynut butter or nut or seed butters 2 Tablespoons 3 Tablespoons 4 Tablespoons
or peanuts, soynuts, tree nuts or seeds 1/2 oz. = 50% 3/4 oz. = 50% 1 oz. = 50%
or yogurt 4 oz.


1/2 cup) 6 oz.
(or 3/4 cup) 8 oz.
(or 1 cup)
or an equivalent quantity of any combination of the above meat/meat alternative
Vegetables and/or Fruits (2 or More) 1/4 cup (total) 1/2 cup (total) 3/4 cup (total)
Grains/Breads 1/2 slice*
(or 1/2 serving) 1/2 slice*
(or 1/2 serving) 1 slice*
(or 1 serving)
* or an equivalent serving of an acceptable grains/breads such as cornbread, biscuits, rolls, muffins, etc., made of whole grain or enriched meal or flour, or a serving of cooked enriched or whole grain rice or macaroni or other pasta products.
** For snack, juice or yogurt may not be served when milk is served as the only other component.


* Keep menu production records
* The required amount of each food must be served
* Use full-strength (100%) juice

nice catch!

is it possible there's some "lunchroom administrator signing statement" program we aren't aware of?

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

it's possible to buy sliced apples, but...

...trading prep dollars for labor dollars still leaves you short of dollars-and an anti-government attitude will never change that.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Schools always seem to be coming up with new Orwellianisms

When I was in school, if you did bad on a test, or didn't hand in homework, you had "tutorial." This meant you sat in an empty classroom while everyone else was at recess while a teacher graded papers. The school pitched it as "a safe and supportive" environment for work, instead of boring kids to death during the time they're supposed to be blowing off steam. (Even if kids didn't do their homework because of an unsafe or unsupportive environment, singling them out and taking their recess isn't the solution.)

Schools have to start treating kids with more respect. So many are conditioned to believe that they have no rights, or that they're not important. When I was in school, it was such a disparity--during history, we'd learn about all our rights, like free expression, free press, freedom from search/seizure, and the importance of dissent, but the rest of the day, we knew anything could be confiscated easily, even the smallest publications could be shut down for the slightest dissent, and so much of "free speech" actually fell under the umbrella of a very loose interpretation of disruption. One friend actually got suspended for two weeks for an email he sent only to other consenting students because it said that he hated the teachers.

Little surprise that it took me years of knowing (I'm in college now) about Bush's spy program for me to mind, despite being far to the left on everything else. It was my daily life for 13 years.

If schools teach us that taking away our dignity and our rights is ok, we won't be able to stand up for them later on. This needs to change.

If a Foreign Power -

were to do what our own school systems are doing to our children - there would be a revolution.

But since it is the us in 'we the people' doing it ... silence.



maybe renaming schools might get them the aid they need from nervous conservatives...

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965


...what he said

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

The Scarlet Letter

Putting a sticker on the child's hand that brands them "poor" or "has bad parents" to their classmates is deplorable.

It's no wonder we have such a big problem with bullying when the school itself promotes isolationism and degradation.

I remember at our school.

Free lunch kids had different colored "lunch tickets". Everyone bought their tickets on Monday and, I think I remember this correctly, the free lunch were different colors at first. Then, they ended up being the same color, but with different letters circled at the bottom.

One man with courage makes a majority.
- Andrew Jackson

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

jake's comment above...

...is an excellent expression of this idea, and all three of these comments exactly capture my take on this.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Children shouldn't be singled out like that.

Anytime you make a differentiation between kids, they know. And they know who the "poor" kids, or the "bad" kids are. They can figure it out.

By the time my son was in elementary school, there were no lunch tickets, and no letters circled - just a list. Everyone was on the list - and only the cafeteria lady knew who was supposed to pay what. My niece was on reduced lunch, my son wasn't. They were in the same class. They never knew - they just went through the line, gave their name, and got their lunch. Which is how it should be.

Maybe Moore County Schools are a lot better than I've been thinking!

a comment...

...at my left wing described a system that is similar-the parent orders and prepays for 2 weeks, allowing the parent and kid to know what days they need to bring lunch, and what that kid will be having each day.

both approaches take the stigma out of the process-and that has to make teaching easier.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Free Lunch

For a time when I was in elementary school (Southern Pines Elementary, now Southern Pines Primary) I received Free Lunch (and breakfast if I wanted). The teacher lined us up in the following order and by height: Free, Reduced, Other. At least from my experience, we little kids in 3rd grade never thought about why certain kids had different lunch situations. If I recall correctly, I was the only white kid in class getting free lunch, but again little kids don't ponder racial issues the way we adults do.

What I do remember is we acutally felt kind of special getting free lunch because we got to be in the front of the line. Additionally, since I was the shortest kid in class I was always the first one in line. Ironically, I am now a bit taller than average.

maybe it's not ironic...

...maybe it was the good lunch.

"...i feel that if a person can't communicate, the very least he can do is to shut up." --tom lehrer, january 1965

Or the prayer in school...

At least through fifth grade(in the early '80's) we all said grace after lining up to go to the cafeteria.

No, I'm not advocating school prayer- just passing along an interesting tidbit.