The notion that there are no free lunches is meant to be figurative. So it is with sorrow we discovered it is applied as literally as a hunger pain at schools in Southwest Colorado such as Miller Middle School in Durango, which was featured in a front-page Herald news story Monday.
Miller was in the news because it had announced it would serve only partial lunches to students who owed $8 or more to the school cafeteria, and put up a sign saying as much that began “Kiddos” and ended, “Be prepared for partial lunches from here until the end of the school year!”
That exclamation mark struck us like a punch in the gut.
A partial lunch consists of a cheese stick or a granola bar, and fruit, according to the website of Durango School District 9-R, where an administrator apparently put some thought into the minimum number of calories needed to keep 11-year-olds alive, at least until after social studies.
Why do our students not have free and complete school lunches? The cost would be a drop in the bucket of their budgets, aid and tax bases. As near as we can tell, the reason we do not, even as Colorado is about to spend $185 million on universal full-day kindergarten, is because some adults are worried that other adults who could afford to pay relatively small amounts for servings of cheesy stuffed breadsticks with marinara dipping sauce or cold turkey sandwiches for their school-age dependents will get off scot-free. Is it really better that some students should go without?
We do not know how far morality should mix with public policy, but we do know that this argument represents a complete moral inversion. We are talking about hungry children. (Use an exclamation mark there if you like.) Surely, it would be better and wiser to feed them first and then worry about an adult notion of fairness that is measured in missed meals and loose change.
All was not lost at Miller. Robyn Baxendale, a special education teacher, launched a fundraiser on Facebook rather than see young students go hungry for reasons beyond their control – which is just the kind of compassion and common sense we want to see from educators. In three days, she raised enough to pay the Miller lunch debt. So it was more cheesy stuffed breadsticks for everyone and all is well that ends well.
But not at 9-R. Asked to comment on the Baxendale solution, the district spokeswoman was not pleased. “We appreciate everyone’s concern in this area,” she said, “but negatively casted, nondistrict-sponsored fundraisers are not necessary.”
We think we know what may have set 9-R off. On Baxendale’s Facebook fundraiser, it says of the Miller sign, “That’s not right. (The cafeteria staff agree so please don’t harass them! It’s a district policy that needs to be addressed.)”
Yet it is hard to see how 9-R would not be better served by simply saying how pleasing this turn was. Any time or money that would be spent retaliating against Baxendale could be redistributed to pay down the district-wide lunch debt, subsidizing meals for the rest of the school year or until 9-R figures out how it wants to serve students and the community, whichever comes first.
Foremost, the 9-R administrators are supposed to be educators, not wardens or bill collectors. That is their business. It would be one thing if they were trying to teach the children that the sins of the parents must be visited upon them, but we hope that is not the case.
Baxendale said she just wanted children at her school to be able to eat a full lunch and not be embarrassed. She did not count on her district embarrassing everyone.
At least the kiddos got fed.