by Christopher Paslay
I often joke with my friends that the Republican party helps rich people stay rich, and that the Democrat party helps poor people stay poor. The slogans for change in the recent presidential race are very ironic: Both candidates are fighting for change to allow voters in their party to stay the same and be more comfortable doing it.
Comfort is to change what water is to a campfire. Real change is the antithesis of complacency. It’s about motivation—about that fire that gets lit inside your stomach and energizes you to overcome obstacles.
This is why I agree with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to change the rules of its Universal Feeding Program, a free breakfast and lunch program offered solely in the Philadelphia School District. Currently, the program doesn’t require students or their families to fill out an application form to get access to free meals.
However, to better monitor the program, the USDA is requiring all children eligible for free or reduced meals to fill out an application starting in the 2010 school year.
School district officials, as well as Philadelphia Community Legal Services, who helped conceive Universal Feeding along with Temple University, were upset to hear about the program’s rule change. Jonathan Stein, general counsel of Community Legal Services, was particularly displeased.
The Inquirer paraphrased Stein’s disappointment: Simple as it sounds, the process of having poor children bring home lunch forms to fill out is a daunting task, said Stein. . . . Children forget, and poor parents already beset by outsized difficulties are unwilling or unable to deal with the forms. And so they languish unsigned. And children miss out on meals.
Loose translation: Filling out a form for a free meal is just too difficult.
This is just another example of how school district officials and community leaders fail to hold students and their parents accountable for even the most menial of tasks. Despite the misleading editorial in the Inquirer, Free School Meals, the USDA is not cutting a free meal program. They are simply trying to better monitor and organize it by requiring students and their parents to fill out a simple form.
But the buck never stops with the students or their parents. We as teachers in the district are taught the mantra, No excuses! Let’s raise the bar! Yet when you look closely at the core mentality of many of our communities, the whole idea of high expectations is a hypocrisy.
Nothing in life is free. Of course there is a stigma attached to filling out a free meal form. It’s the stigma that lights that fire in the student’s belly that says, Man, it’s embarrassing to be poor. Maybe I should take school seriously and make something of myself.
Struggling families in Philadelphia need tough love. We must help them grow stronger by holding them accountable for a minimum level of tasks. If filling out a free meal form is just too daunting, as Jonathan Stein says, we as teachers and community leaders must work closer with our struggling neighbors to teach them the basic life skills needed to survive. The last thing we should do is reinforce their bad habits by refusing to hold them accountable for their self-destructive behavior.
The USDA’s rule change on free meals is a step in the right direction. Stigma and hunger pangs just might be the wake-up call necessary to get struggling families on their feet and win back control of their lives.