The nine scariest words in the English language?
Ronald Reagan nailed it: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
The best recent example of what happens when government runs amok with imposing solutions from the top down can be found in Manteca Unified cafeterias. Or, more precisely, in the IOUs that the district holds that have Manteca Unified families on the hook for $204,000 as of mid-August.
To be clear, the founding principles of the school lunch program are sound. While some basic government purists may argue that school lunches shouldn’t be funded, most would likely disagree.
The problem comes when bureaucrats — and politicians — can’t resist fine tuning when they come across practices they find abhorring and automatically assume are universal.
Such is the case with so-called school lunch” shaming,”
It references kids who didn’t qualify for free or reduced price meals and lack the means at lunchtime to purchase a cafeteria meal assuming they didn’t bring their own lunch.
Manteca Unified students in such cases up until the start of last school year received peanut butter and crackers along with a trip to the garden bar.
That wasn’t the case in many districts across the country and in California. Students received a slice of processed cheese between two pieces of bread or a peanut butter sandwich.
Last school year was when the federal bureaucracy decreed all students had to be served the same meal whether they paid for it or not.
That meant Manteca Unified had to allow lunch charges.
Manteca Unified for years has allowed advance payment of lunches including via the Internet. Students that paid or qualified for free and reduced lunches were treated the same in line. You couldn’t tell one from another.
So what happened last school year? Manteca Unified students owed $370,000 when classes ended in May. By mid-August parents reduced that amount to $204,000.
In most cases parents had no clue what was happening. Sometimes their child lost or forgot their money. Sometimes kids “gamed” the system using lunch money for something else and opted for the peanut butter and crackers plus garden bar. And there were those who outright preferred the peanut butter and crackers plus salad bar which meant in order to get it they had to say they had no lunch money.
At the start of this year Manteca Unified was much more aggressive than usual at communicating payment options to parents and making it clear charged lunches eventually have to be paid before students could participate in extra-curricular activities or graduation ceremonies. High school students were banned from charging.
No one was being ridiculed before federal bureaucrats got worked up into a tizzy about “lunch shamming.” And in Manteca Unified they were getting a free trip to the garden bar — arguably the most popular aspect of the lunch program. Meanwhile those without the means to pay under free and reduced lunch rules were still eating.
The California Legislature piled on by passing a state law and sending it to the governor to ban lunch shaming in Golden State schools.
Forget the fact the federal government had already done just that.
The bill calls for districts to do all that they can to get parents that qualify based on income to register children in free and reduced lunch programs subsidized by the federal government and not the state. Manteca Unified already does that. Some 56 percent of the district’s 24,500 students are enrolled in the program.
They also must notify parents — not bill collectors — when unpaid lunch balances are 10 days old. Districts also must not allow employees to verbally reprimand kids for not having lunch money or stamping their hands to remind parents that they owe lunch money. Those are not issues for Manteca Unified.
It doesn’t matter that Manteca Unified has been doing things right. It doesn’t matter that the federal one-size-fits-all solution created the problem of unpaid lunch bills. And it doesn’t matter that the state is being redundant so politicians can collect brownie points for being outraged on camera and in press releases.
At least Sacramento hasn’t gone as far as New York City — not yet, anyway.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration this year rolled out “Free Lunch for All” because they didn’t want kids who qualified for free and reduced meals to feel like social outcasts.
Forget the fact that 75 percent of New York City’s public school students were receiving free meals making those who pay the odd kids.
Lawmakers piled on slamming the school lunch program as it had existed in New York City as one that divided children by income. Funny, but the same politicians are often adamantly opposed to neutralizing the one thing that is a non-stop reminder of income from the beginning school bell to final dismal — student dress. Mention school uniforms and they have a cow as they defend individuality.
New York City taxpayers are being promised that covering the meals for all students won’t affect the city’s bottom line because they will make state and federal taxpayers pick up the bill.
If they buy that line it makes New York City taxpayers the biggest schmucks around given they are also state and federal taxpayers.
Only politicians can say with a straight face that there is a such a thing as a free school lunch.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.