By Martin Lopez
I call it “forced eating,” because the more I think about it the more it reminds me of the forced busing program of the 1970s. Although well-intentioned, I believe LAUSD’s Breakfast in Class program is a misstep.
I am the parent of a kindergarten student at Coeur d’Alene Elementary School in Venice and recently sat in on my child’s class to observe how it works.
Before the program started earlier this year, kids who qualified for a free breakfast ate during the few minutes before school, and kids who didn’t qualify for free breakfast paid for it. They ate at the lunch tables side by side. It worked pretty well.
Under the Breakfast in Class program, kids or volunteers fetch a luggage cart with thermal containers and roll it into the classroom. Food is handed out during class time, so instead of learning the kids are eating. In my kid’s class about half of the students have signed a form opting out, so those kids sit up front and interact with a teacher or aide while the other kids eat. The day I visited, eight kids were eating the breakfast, including my own — whom, by the way, I had served eggs, fruit and toast about an hour earlier. The process took about 25 minutes, including setup and cleanup.
A school year of 180 days means that breakfast in class costs each participating student 60 hours per school year. For my kindergartener, that’s 10 days of learning lost. That family who strives for perfect attendance: Your kid just missed 10 days of school. How are we going to make our schools great again starting with that?
The next thing that occurred to me was the imbalance. Some kids were eating while others were already engaged in education. Imbalance, I’m sorry to say, means discrimination. The praiseworthy idea was to get some food in the stomachs of disadvantaged kids without stigmatizing them, but now we’ve just cut 10 days out of their school year. If someone straight-out suggested giving disadvantaged kids less time in class there would be a riot.
Maybe the motivation was to reduce the stigma of free meals, but all the students at my kid’s school have a debit account for breakfasts and lunches. Parents put money into the account, and the kids just say their name to the cashier. They don’t require a special card, purple ticket, Day-Glo “underprivileged kid” T-shirt or anything else that would call attention to them. The only way anyone would know if a meal was paid-for or free would be by the student’s own admission or by observation of the cashier’s keystrokes on the register. Well, these kids aren’t CIA operatives. There’s a good chance they won’t notice who is paying or not.
So if the prior system didn’t stigmatize or take away class time, the only reason for changing it would have to be because needy kids couldn’t get to school on time to partake of the meals provided. If such is the case, that’s simply pathetic.
In case you think me some privileged snob, let me tell you I know firsthand of what I speak. I received subsidized meals in school because my family was poor — five kids and a single mom struggling to make it. We were also on what was then called welfare until my mother completed her degree in nursing and started working full time. Things are different now, but the principle is the same: if you are in need, there is help. I was grateful for it then and I’m grateful for it now. When I was getting free lunches as a kid I sometimes felt some stigma, but it wasn’t just the purple meal tickets we were given, it was the neighborhood we lived in, the run-down car we drove, the clothes we wore. It was crappy being poor. But I was fortunate enough to get a breakfast every morning at home. Sometimes it was just Cheerios with milk, sometimes more. What I’m getting at here is that lowering the bar does not do the child or family any favors. Parents have got to get their kids to school on time. And at our school, kids can still eat an hour and 15 minutes later at the 9:30 a.m. break.
Another thing I noticed was the quality of the breakfast itself. It was pretty much a mini-mart meal: pancakes in a bag, a banana and milk. A day before that it was a breakfast quesadilla, and before that a coffee cake-type thing. We can’t all have organic free-range happy chicken eggs and Greek yogurt for breakfast, but this was a marginal offering at best. And at least at 7-Eleven the ingredients are listed on the bag. Not so here.
Subsidized meals can happen without taking up precious class time. There’s so little of it, let’s use what we have to fill hungry minds.
Martin Lopez lives in Venice. Send comments to letters(at)argonautnews.com.