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Chula Vista Elementary's notorious cheese sandwich lunch

The stigma of not paying

— The School Nutrition Association announced Monday that Biff Burger won the election. He beat Jesse Wrap, Yumi Rice Bowl, Pippa Potato, and Patty Mac 'n' Cheese in the Vote for School Lunch competition. On August 1, children from all over the country began to choose their favorite menus. The last ballot was cast Friday as the culmination of National School Lunch Week. The U.S. Congress in 1946 created the National School Lunch Program, citing evidence that hungry children do not learn. Nowadays children eat nutritious, well-balanced meals at school. Biff's menu offers kids a hamburger on whole wheat bun with tomato and lettuce, red potatoes with herbs, peach cobbler, and milk. The menu is only one of many that some children receive free. Others pay $1.50 per meal, and still others a reduced price.

Nobody seems surprised that Chula Vista Elementary School District's cheese sandwich menu wasn't nominated as one of this year's candidates. The sandwich is two slices of American cheese slapped dry into whole-wheat bread. In June, harsh spotlights were shone on the district's practice of offering the "alternative meal" to kids whose parents were delinquent on their school lunch bills. Both the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times singled out the Chula Vista district for using one of the more draconian approaches to the problem. Subsequently, the Union-Tribune ran an editorial condemning the practice. All critics seem to agree that children shouldn't be shamed in front of other kids by depriving them of schools' regular lunches. And they shouldn't be punished for their parents' irresponsibility.

The intent of the bland alternative meal, of course, was to induce the children to pester their parents to pay up. Chula Vista claimed that serving the cheese sandwich reduced its delinquency balance from $285,000 in 2003 to $67,800 this year.

For comparison, San Diego Unified School District, which is kindergarten through 12th grade, reports that as of June, its outstanding balance was $13,500. Joanne Tucker is food services marketing coordinator for the district. "The problem of delinquent accounts in the School Lunch Program is serious everywhere in the country," she tells me by phone. "After all, we're a business. I feel sorry that the Chula Vista district has gotten so much negative publicity over their program. The cheese sandwich meal is nutritious. I went to a conference in Chicago not long ago, and an official from a Kansas district told us, 'We're in the black.' People wanted to know how they did it, and he said that when parents had unpaid balances, his district didn't give their children anything to eat. Well, we would never do anything like that in San Diego."

I ask if San Diego Unified used the alternative-meal approach to collecting debt. "No," says Tucker, "our food services director is much too kindhearted. Each of our schools calls delinquent parents to remind them that they're past due. Some schools are more successful than others. Soon we are going to an automated calling program in the hopes of doing better."

On June 25, Speaker of the California State Assembly Fabian Núñez wrote a letter to all school districts in California to discover how many "are providing an 'alternative' -- and intentionally undesirable -- meal to their children.... These districts are...stigmatizing children to put pressure on their parents."

Lowell Billings, superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District, responded to Núñez three days later. "We serve six entrees each day, one of which is a cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread.... Additionally, with each meal [including the alternative cheese sandwich meal] we offer a full salad bar, a full fresh fruit bar, a promotional item, and milk, all for the price of $1.50 for full-pay students and $.75 for low income half-pay students.

"The alternative meal largely targets students with families most able to pay.... I have great difficulty understanding this as a 'stigma meal' or a less than nutritional offering. We serve approximately 400 cheese sandwiches daily. [Sometimes] they are the meal of choice. Feedback from principals indicates that some students have been found to throw away a packed lunch to get an alternative meal. [Billings confessed to eating and liking the cheese sandwich too.] Furthermore, principals do not find widespread student self-esteem issues associated with our practice....

"The delinquent meal balances are owed by the highest income families in our District. Why should we allow their indiscretion to impact those students who are most needy? There is a lesson in this for our students. Data [from] the Junior Achievement of San Diego and Imperial Counties show that the number one cause of college dropouts is not poor academic standing but credit card debt. Where do they learn this important life skill set?

"Our state legislature," Billings concluded, "could benefit from this same lesson. I am fearful that the ongoing structural state budget deficit undermines our children's future."

Apparently, Núñez, who was recently skewered in a Union-Tribune editorial for using campaign funds for personal trips, was not convinced. In the July 5 Los Angeles Daily News, he wrote of "at least four school districts in the state [that] serve substandard lunches to children whose parents fall into arrears on payment into their child's lunch accounts." "If the 'dunce cap' were still in use as a schoolhouse punishment, there are several school officials in California who need to be assigned corners and fitted with cones.... Make no mistake," Núñez went on, "parents have a duty to fulfill their responsibilities.... But leave the kids out of it. Any dunce who allows the punishing of kids over their parents' mistakes is the one who deserves to be shamed."

But what of the superintendent's defense? It is not a good sign that at the end of his letter he changed the subject to the legislature's problems. To address the alternative meal's inclusion of salad and fruit bars made more sense. Even that, however, is less than reassuring, given kids' notorious aversion to salads. The additional fact that the Chula Vista district recently started serving a ham-turkey sandwich as another alternative meal was a concession to critics. Many parents had been arguing that constant repetition of only the cheese sandwich alternative would provoke kids to throw it away. Now there is even talk among district employees of occasionally offering tacos as the alternative meal.

The question of how serious the self-esteem problem is for alternative-meal kids pits the principals cited by Billings against many parents. Kirk Yale tells me by phone that a year ago his second-grade daughter came home from a district school "very distraught." Before she started through the lunch line, she was surprised that her white plastic card authorizing her to eat had been replaced with a red one. That signified that her parents were at least $5 behind on their school lunch bill. Yale's daughter told him, he says, that the other children immediately "made fun of her" for being poor. The girl's humiliation was also the first notice that he was in arrears, according to Yale.

Parents who began calling the red card a "scarlet letter" eventually convinced officials to get rid of it. They're not happy, however, with the district's halfhearted change. A black check mark on the white card still stands out on the upright boards that hold the cards where the children pick them up.

An odd aspect of Billings' attempt to defend his district's alternative-meal program was his praise of the cheese sandwich. Originally, the district said it chose the sandwich as such a boring entrée that it would make parents pay their bills. Why was Billings touting its popularity, especially in light of contrary evidence he had? A "Vote and Be Heard" study of menu choices recently released by the district showed what the kids like best. No surprises here. First on the "Menu Poll Results" page is Domino's Pizza, followed closely by generic pizza. At a greater distance behind, but still popular, stand chicken nuggets, burrito, nachos, cheeseburger, and hot dog. In dead last place, receiving but a single vote, is the cheese sandwich.

Besides stimulating payment of school lunch debts, serving the cheese sandwich is profitable for the district. Whenever it serves the alternative meal, the district charges the same price it does for regular menu meals, either $1.50 or 75 cents. On a "Food Cost Comparisons" sheet recently released by the district, a bean and cheese burrito showed a "total cost of meal" as 74 cents. For chicken nuggets, it was 60 cents. The cheese sandwich cost 54 cents, and the turkey-ham sandwich 45 cents. It's no wonder that the district agreed to the turkey-ham sandwich as a second version of the alternative meal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides school districts free commodities that become the ingredients in their National School Lunch meals. For example, they can get canned tomatoes. Whole and diced tomatoes are worth 4 cents per serving. Tomato sauce is worth 3 cents per serving, and tomato paste 1 cent. Cheeses come in a number of varieties, each worth 9 cents per serving. In the case of the cheese sandwich meal, free commodities drop the cost from 54 to 45 cents per meal.

Then there are the National School Lunch Program reimbursements. When the meal is for a student who pays $1.50, the program reimburses the district 23 cents per meal, for a total payment to the district of $1.73. For a reduced-price student, the program reimburses $2.07, for a total of $2.30, and for the no-pay student, it reimburses $2.47.

Critics say the district doesn't do enough to encourage low-income parents to sign up. If the parents don't enroll in the program, they send their children to school with (or without) a lunch. Or they pay the $1.50 price for the school lunch. Some of these parents enroll in the program later. If they are in arrears on their earlier school lunch bills, the school gives their children the alternative meal until those bills are paid.

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