Schools should not be held responsible for students refusing free meals

by Christopher Paslay


For antipoverty advocates, it’s not enough that the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single school. 


They must also COAX the students into eating it as well. 


Call me old fashioned, but I always thought that HUNGER sparked the desire to eat.  According to Abraham Maslow, motivation is driven by the existence of unsatisfied needs. 


Not in Philadelphia.  According to a story in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Phila. School breakfasts lure few, the district is failing its students. 


Inquirer Staff Writer Alfred Lubrano uses an interesting choice of words in the first sentence of his lead:


Just one in three low-income students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts got those meals in Philadelphia schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to a national report released yesterday.


The curious part is the word GOT, which connotes the idea that eligible students are lining-up in Philadelphia public schools to receive their free meals but through some fault of the district, they’re not receiving them.


This clearly isn’t the case.  According to School Breakfast in America’s Big Cities, School Year 2006-2007, the very report Lubrano cites in his article, the Philadelphia School District reported serving breakfast in every school in the district.      


A more accurate intro would read as follows:


 Just one in three low-income students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts ACCEPTED those meals in Philadelphia schools during the 2006-07 school year, according to a national report released yesterday.


This would shift the responsibility away from teachers and schools and place it where it belongs: On the parents and the students themselves. 


The Inquirer article goes on to quote Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services, an antipoverty advocate.        


“The real problem with breakfast has been the resistance at the local school level,” Stein told the Inquirer. “Many principals and staff have not been gung-ho behind breakfast. And this is a laissez-faire district where the principals essentially call the shots.”


Again, the wording is misleading.  Principals HAVE offered free breakfast in schools around the district, but not in the way people like Stein find acceptable. 


The typical school breakfast in Philadelphia is served in the cafeteria in the morning, about 20-30 minutes before the instructional day begins.  The breakfast is FREE, and ALL students are eligible.


Then why are only one in three low-income students getting breakfast?  Because many kids come to school late, opting to smoke a cigarette at the bus stop or listen to their iPod on the corner.  Others eat Dortios and Pepsi for breakfast, while some stop off at Dunkin Donuts for a nice cup of joe.  Others fuel up on energy drinks, such as Red Bull or Monster.   


And some just flat out aren’t hungry. 


So who’s at fault here?  The students themselves?  The parents who fail to instill in their children the importance of eating a healthy breakfast?


Of course not.  It’s the school’s fault.  It’s not enough to just offer meals completely free of charge, but now people like Jonathan Stein are insisting principals and teachers get “gung-ho” about breakfast and stop their “resistance” to such meals. 


Resistance?  Are you kidding me?


Stein wants all public schools in Philadelphia to serve breakfast in class.  So does Kathy Fisher, welfare and public benefits coordinator for Public Citizens for Children and Youth of Philadelphia. 


“They should make it policy in Philadelphia to have in-class breakfast feeding,” Fisher told the Inquirer. “It seems the model works well in other places.”


So let me get this straight.  In 2006-07, the Philadelphia School District made breakfast available to all kids in all schools, 75% of which got them for free or at a reduced rate.  Then in September of 2008-09, the district pulled out all the stops and decided to offer free meals to all students in all schools.


But this still isn’t good enough.  Now antipoverty advocates want meals served in-class. 


I see.  Milk and juice and syrup and French toast and bagels and cream cheese.  Outside the lunchroom.  At students’ desks.  Where their books are.  And papers.  And pencils.  And this is supposed to be done when?  In place of which part of the mandated curriculum? 


Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of food services for the district, even suggested holding principals accountable for students taking part in the free meals.  According to the Inquirer, Grasela “is recommending to the district that the performance of principals in breakfast service be included in their job evaluations.”


Hmm, nice touch.  While we’re at it, why not hold the teachers accountable as well.  Dock their pay $50 a shot for every scrambled-egg platter that isn’t finished by the kids.


Apparently, underprivileged children and their parents are too helpless and feeble-minded to accomplish the most basic of organizational tasks (such as getting to school in time for a free meal).  It’s just this kind of insulting, condescending mentality that prevents too many capable families in Philadelphia from becoming independent and taking back control of their lives. 


And it’s just this kind of twisted blame-game that keeps too many quality educators out of Philadelphia’s public school system.