If You Can’t Fill Out a Meal Form, You Don’t Deserve Free Eats

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.

2 thoughts on “If You Can’t Fill Out a Meal Form, You Don’t Deserve Free Eats

  1. Christoper Pasley is woefully misinformed. Instead of parroting and assuming the truth of the USDA public relations response, that killing Universal Service feeding is needed to better monitor the program, if he did a bit of research with the Food Services division at the School District or The Reinvestment Fund, which did the socio-economic survey of eligible households underpinning Universal Service in 200 schools, he’d learn that Universal Services provides MORE
    accurate verification pof eligibility for free or reduced meals than the individual paper applications ! (This is because the study uses a 15% i n person plus paper documentation verification of the sample, a far higher standind than USDA uses for paper applications across the nation.) So before Christopher cheers on stigma and hunger pains for others, especially rather innocent, hungry kids, maybe he should wake-up to realize that paper applications are just dumb, no cost-effective, and divert scarce education funds to unnecessary paper-work. Chris might consider fasting for a day or two, and seeing whether his hunger pains might motivate him to do his homework on the the cost-benefits of Universal Service, what do you say my man?

  2. Mr. Stein,

    Just so you know, I too want the district to save money, and of course I want kids to eat. I know first hand what it’s like to teach a student who is hungry and hasn’t eaten properly.

    However, the district’s ability to save money and the USDA’s ability to monitor free meals is not why I wrote what I did. My point was about instilling life skills. All folks, in order to function in society, must be able to peform a minimum level of tasks. And filling out a meal form is one of these taks. The meal is still FREE. You make it sound like the USDA is taking food out of hungry mouths, but they’re not; they simply want their own applications used. Yeah, I know your argument: The forms are complicated, and the kids lose them, and the parents are busy at work, etc. But we can’t throw up our hands and say, “They’re too poor and dysfunctional, let’s just write them off.”

    Yes, it’s paperwork for the sake of paperwork. Why? Because LIFE is paperwork. Voter’s registration, driver’s license, mortgage, bank loan, college and job applications, etc. So why not start teaching students and their families to learn the system? To play the game? Teachers like me will help them. So will school counselors and social workers.

    Now IS the time to teach a lesson. Free is dangerous. It promotes bad habits. What does it say to the child growing up? How do you think he’ll rasie his son or daughter? With high expectations?

    I’m sorry, but I’m not giving up on the children of Philadelphia. I think they CAN fill out a simple form, and learn how to survive in our society. The USDA was generous enough to give out paperwork-free meals for years, now they’re pulling the plug. Now kids in Philly are going to have to do what eveyone else does in America to get a free meal: fill out a form.

    As for your challenge for me to fast for a day or two: If the Phillies don’t wrap this thing up tonight in game 5, I just might be too anxious to eat until the World Series is over.

    Chris Paslay

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