Utah’s School Lunch Food Fight

Oliver Twist 2There just aren’t words for this:

“Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.

“It was pretty traumatic and humiliating,” said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South.”  [Salt Lake Tribune]

There may be several layers to this unfortunate story.   At one level this is a classic example of poor management.  Every business operation has accounts receivable.   Most functional businesses have a policy on accounts receivable which doesn’t include this kind of apologetic statement:

“This situation could have and should have been handled in a different manner. We apologize. The post adds: “We understand the feelings of upset parents and students who say this was an embarrassing and humiliating situation. We again apologize and commit to working with parents in rectifying this situation and to ensuring students are never treated in this manner again.”  [Salt Lake Tribune]

Those who tout the line “government should work like a business” would do well to look at some model accounts receivable policies.  It really isn’t all that difficult.  First, the business should send out its bills promptly after any goods are transferred or services are rendered.  Once the bills are out, there should be continuing and timely attempts to collect payment.

There really is no excuse for a customer response stating “I didn’t know” the account was in arrears.  The agency (public or private) should have documentation of the billing and the attempts made to contact the client or customer — on that continuing and timely basis.   The old “dog ate my homework” (I don’t remember getting the bill) excuse falls flat in the face of documentation.   The collection attempts should incorporate the penalties for non-payment — and these should be understood before action is taken.

No one, customer/client or management, is well served by a record keeping operation which leaves the customers wondering if they’ve paid in full for goods or services and management making instantaneous decisions of questionable judgment on site.

At another level this incident may fall into the current fascination with Poor Bashing.  Indeed, there is no such thing as a free lunch, but equating poverty with irresponsibility is a leap too far.  This skewed equation was on full display last December, compliments of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA):

“Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) wants kids to learn early in life that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. To make sure they absorb that lesson, he’s proposing that low-income children do some manual labor in exchange for their subsidized meals.”  [HuffPo]

Aside from the Dickensian tone of the Representative’s remarks, there’s nothing to substantiate his assumption that children living in poverty don’t understand work.  The numbers support the contention that they may understand the current employment situation all too well.

Over two-thirds of poor children live in families with at least one worker. Over 30 percent of poor children and more than half of low income children live in families with at least one worker employed full time year round. Among Hispanic children, the largest single group of poor children, only about one quarter live in families with no worker and more than one third have at least one full time, full year worker. Many poor and low income children have parents who work hard but for very little pay.”  [Clasp.Org pdf] (emphasis added)

The mind-set on display from Representative Kingston, et. al., is nothing more than a variation on the long discredited and debunked Welfare Queen mythology which so gently massages the racism and fear of too many in the conservative camp.

In the case of elementary school children — they are all getting a free lunch — either the state is subsidizing it or the parents are doing so.   If the decision made by the supervisor in the Utah case was predicated on teaching “the parents to be responsible” then it went wide of the mark.  Making children the target for the shortcomings of a district’s bookkeeping and management systems or parental irresponsibility isn’t a solution to either problem.

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