A number of parents were upset starting last week when they packed their children off to school in the Tahlequah district, only to learn their kids were handed a cheese sandwich instead of a hot lunch. Those kids didn't have money in their accounts to pay for the food.
Within hours after the controversy erupted on social media, though, Tahlequah Public Schools announced it would give families a few more days to either put money in their kids' accounts, or turn in the paperwork to give them access to free or reduced-price meals. That was a good move, but the district can't bear full responsibility. Parents, too, have to be proactive in making sure their kids are fed.
As the lengthy Facebook thread discussing this situation has proved, the meals served at school - or lack thereof, along with who should pay for them and how much - is contentious. It shouldn't be, but these days, a box of crayons can be the impetus for a heated argument. Some wanted to blame the parents for not making sure their children had lunch money, or for failing to send in the proper paperwork for free or reduced-priced meals. Others insisted meals should be free to all children - especially since, as some pointed out, the government "forces" children to attend school. Indeed, some rural schools in Cherokee County do offer free meals to all students.
The angst is understandable, because two pieces of bread with a slice of cheese in between is no one's definition of a hearty meal. And both parents and school administrators should do everything possible to ensure every student gets a nutritious meal. Studies have long shown that children with good eating habits fare better in class - and what rational parent doesn't want his or her child to succeed?
Years ago, schools let students "charge" their lunches for weeks on end, but ultimately, certain parents took advantage and never paid their bills. At some point, the schools would cut off the supply, like any other business or institution would do when a "customer" fails to pay. But then, many people began to question the wisdom of that policy, saying children shouldn't be blamed for their parents' actions, or lack thereof. It also became apparent that, sadly, some parents put their own needs before those of their kids.
The free and reduced-price school meal program has been a boon for low-income families. In some cases, these are the only meals a child gets during the day. There are requirements, though, and paperwork is involved, so families must take steps to reap the benefits. In the recent past, when that didn't happen, schools would serve peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the "non-payers." But with peanut allergies growing ever more prevalent, some districts took another path - which is what TPS did. Still, that modest sustenance can come with a stigma.
Parents and school districts should meet each other halfway. Communication is essential, and when a child seems to be falling through the cracks, perhaps an alert teacher or administrator can make contact with the parents. Or a parent that needs more time to complete paperwork or procure documentation can call the school and ask for more time.
Our children are our most precious resource, and unless they're healthy, they cannot one day assume the productive roles society expects of them. Basic meals shouldn't be a stumbling block.