21 October 2010

Three Squares at School

Schools in Washington, DC have started to serve dinners at school to an estimated 10,000 students or about a quarter of the student population.  Poverty activists claim that 40 percent of D.C. households with children did not have enough money to buy food. This program is justified as an effort to curb childhood hunger obesity and difficulty in learning.  This dinner at school program will cost the schools about $5.7 million and the spending is reimbursed through a USDA Child and Adult Food Program budget.

To be fair, this program is also utilized in 13 states but none to the extent of DC Public Schools. But the DC City Council heightened the stakes in school meals by passing the Healthy Schools Act in May, which required that schools prepare healthier low-fat meals and rewarded school cafeterias for using locally-sourced fresh ingredients.

There are some interesting synergies and perplexing priorities with loading the schools plate with more than the responsibility of educating children in the classroom.  Since the USDA program is paid on a per meal basis, there does not seem to be a means testing for the school dinners.  So well to do kids can gather around the school’s dinner table without consequence to the school’s budget. At seven public schools, meals are prepared at the DC Central Kitchen,  a non-profit agency that helps the homeless and ex-offenders reenter the job market. The City Council micro-managing mandate about healthier meals and fresh, local ingredients means that mystery meat may be off the menu, but the supposed good for you food may not appeal to many finicky childrens’ palates.

This school dinner program raises some contentious issues. School dinners would not induce as much indigestion to taxpayers if the DC Public Schools performed their primary task well.  But the DC public schools overall per student spending is $25,000 and it has some of the worst performing students in the nation.  DC School Chancellor Michelle Rhee felt compelled to resign her post because her take charge approach to improving student test scores by holding teachers accountable became a political issue that contributed to her Mayor’s defeat in the primaries.

Many question the propriety of usurping parental duties to feed your family.  If the government is providing three hots then why not a cot too? If schools don’t want to go that far, maybe they can follow the lead of Cincinnati Public Schools and bus high school seniors to the early voting polling place with a sample ballot that just shows Democrat candidates.  Afterwards, officials can take them out for ice cream.

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