Heather Michon

Heather Michon
June 25
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FEBRUARY 27, 2009 10:25AM

The Cheese Sandwich Conundrum

Rate: 23 Flag

When I was in junior high school, one day my mother decided to pack me a more interesting lunch than my usual sandwich-and-a-side.

I can't remember what it was, other than it was something I loved to eat at home. What I do remember, more than a quarter-century later, is the snorts of derision from my sandwich-munching peers. I was doing something "different," and at the age of 13, being "different" was the worst thing imaginable. I ended up throwing my special treat away and going hungry.

So I can empathize with kids Albuquerque who are facing the dread new "cheese sandwich policy."  With hundreds of parents in months in arrears on school lunch bills, children are being served a "courtesy lunch" of a cold cheese sandwich, fruit and milk.

"Every time I eat it, it makes me feel like I want to throw up," says seven-year-old Danessa Vigil. She vows she'll never eat cheese again.

"Some parents don't have even $1 sometimes," her mother Darlene tells the Associated Press. "If they do, it's for something else, like milk at home. There are some families that just don't have it and that's the reason they're not paying."

Albuquerque school officials understand the problem, but they also see the mounting debt on their budget sheets. Since the start of the school year they have tabulated $140,000 in unpaid lunch fees, and project that this debt will grow to $300,000 by the end of the year.

Federal law prevents them from applying school lunch money towards the debt. So they remind parents with an automated collection call each night and a note sent home each week, netting them about $91,000 since the start of the alternative lunch program.

 They've been shuttling as many kids as possible -- among them Danessa Vigil -- into the free- and reduced-rate lunch programs. Like other school districts around the country, they've come up with the low-cost sandwich lunch to fill the gap.  

Critics say the school district is stigmatizing children for their parents poverty. They report that in some schools kids are pulled out of the main lunch line to get their special meals. Some parents say the anxiety is so severe that the children don't even want to go to school, much less lunch.                   
It's a story with no villans, just the new math: neither the parents nor the school district has enough money to meet their obligations.

 The school district can either let these children going hungry -- and in some states, that does happen -- or come up with an alternative until they can find an actual solution. For their part, parents need to overcome their own embarrassment, stop ducking the issue, and see if they can come up with a debt-resolution plan and enroll in programs designed to give their kids access to the still-unappetizing but socially-acceptable lunch line.     

Clearly, if they are going to have to hold to these policies, the school districts should find a way to serve these prosaic lunches without making them feel like they are being singled out for punishment -- perhaps by winding it into a larger discussion how this new Depression is going to affect the lives of all of us.

    Because when they understand the big picture even a kid can grasp that in the greater scheme of things, a cheese sandwich ain't that bad.


Recently:  We looked at a strangely sexist poll run by a popular newsmagazine, talked about the bailout of mom-to-14 Nadya Suleman, and deconstructed our animal natures as reflected by the tale of Travis the Chimp.   

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The solution to the problem comes from seeking contributions from business in the areas to make up the shortfall. My grandfather did this as mayor during the depression to start a school lunch and breakfast program.
Wow! It's really shocking that the recession is hitting people at such a basic level--their school lunches. I like the way you write this--starting with your own story and giving people who have not experienced this a way to empathize.
Danessa speaks really well for a year old student! :-)
Yeah, living here in New Mexico, I've been paying a great deal of attention to this situation. The sad reality is New Mexico is the 43rd poorest state in the nation in terms of individual income according to a 2007 source. Though I wish there was some way where all children to be granted regular access to a nutritious school lunch, at this time that isn't an option. I also know that there are those who would scream "socialism" as soon as it would be considered. We had a Republican president who thought that ketchup was a vegetable and our last Republican president who cut funding and eased standards for school nutrition programs. That, in addition to this economy, means the most vulnerable in our society are the ones feeling the pain.
Oops. Salon ate my "7"! I have the feeling Danessa would be very angry with me for getting her age wrong. Let me just fix that.....
This makes me angry at so many levels, but I'll concentrate on just one. I'm not sure this country is going to be able to come together to get us out of this crisis. People who need to be stepping up to the plate to help are instead sitting on the sidelines.

There are so many easy solutions to this: why can't parents "adopt" a school-lunch child to help pay. Where's the PTA? Where's the school union? For god's sake, sponsor a weekly bake sale or something!

Thanks for posting this. Rated
In high school, I did not once eat lunch provided by the school. I'm not sure I ever ate lunch at all. We simply couldn't afford it. I would rather starve than have the different-color "reduced price" lunch ticket that stood out like a neon-colored tazmanian devil. OK, so maybe now I can see it as stupid pride but do the people instigating these policies remember childhood at all?
I'm going to take a contrarian view here:

Is it not possible for these parents to pack their kids a lunch??

It sounds like that's not even considered an option. But when I was growing up, most kids, not just poor kids, brought their lunches to school (the school food was considered fairly inedible - -and it was). And a lowly PB sandwich was not considered a source of shame, just a normal lunch, and they're damn cheap. (So are homemade cheese sandwiches as well as leftovers, etc)

My mother grew up on a farm, fairly poor, and carried onion and butter sandwiches to school (yes, and she literally walked 3 miles to it, including in the snow).

It boggles me that this option isn't even mentioned, like it's unheard of for parents to make lunches for kids anymore. Isn't that a bigger issue? Especially considering all the data on how Americans (even poorer ones) increasingly spend their food dollars on prepared, take out and restaurant food rather than making cheaper and more nutritious food at home?
In South Caronlina they hold a lottery
What a sad, sad situation that you described so well. Very balanced and realistic post.

I like the idea of having an "adopt a free lunch student" drive, and I'm also wondering where the PTAs and other local school administration fits in with all of this. Either way, singling kids out to have a processed-cheese sandwich because their parents didn't or can't afford to pay is horrible--poor kids feel bad enough when they see their better-fed, better-clothed, and often better-nurtured peers, and schools have no business instituting one more indignity, especially such a conspicuous one. If I were that little girl, I'd swear off cheese sandwiches for the rest of my life, too.

Also, I know why poor parents don't pack a lunch--why would you give precious food that could go to dinner and breakfast (and thus stretch your grocery dollars farther) when schools provide free lunches precisely for poor families who can't afford three square meals a day for each kid? Obviously, signing them up for hot lunch every day and then not paying the bill and not inquiring about other options such as free and reduced lunch isn't an acceptable route to take either, but there has to be some middle ground that doesn't involve punishing children for being poor.
i suppose socialism is out of the question?
I'm confused. I love cheese sandwiches. Can't they grill it?
@Ghost writer -- I'm a cheese sandwich fan myself. I could eat them every day, cold or grilled. The only prerequisite is that the cheese be real, not that gross, processed orange stuff!
Very Disturbing - I wonder what the students have for breakfast and dinner or on the weekend - There may be a way to have those in need to be tied into the USDA's food stamp program - taking the burden off the school - you would be suprised to learn how much $$ is left unused - In any event this would be much greater investment for the current bailout -
i live in maryland where both free breakfast and lunches are offered to those who need them. it's a local juristiction-state-federally adminatered program. whatever the meal is, is what it is. as far as i know every effort is made to to have no stigma attached. if those newly initiated are served diffrent meals, it's just wrong. but this situation as sad as it is sounds like a local and state issue(not the child going hungry part). what do your local school boards, county or city leaders say? the governor. i never heard of a program like you guys have in new mexico. bizarre.
It seems to me that if you can't afford to feed the subsidized kids anything but cheese, you can't afford to feed anyone anything but cheese. The parents who can afford it can pay a little more.

Folks don't seem to understand that no one is an island, and that's even more true when you're talking about children. The child going to school with your child is the doctor who will take care of your child, the policeman who will protect him, or the criminal who will break into his house, and it's up to all of us which one he'll be.
If minimum wage were a living wage, parents could afford to pay the school lunch bill. When I lived in Santa Fe, a maid at one of the hotels told me she and her husband worked six jobs between them while her mother took care of their kids. And this family was barely making it. Outrageous that people can't live on a single job.
This is a horribly sad situation all around, but what it comes down to is this: nobody ever dies from humiliation, but plenty have died from hunger. So let's get our priorities right. Feed the kids first. We'll find a way to patch up the humiliation and hurt feelings later.
This is happening in our schools also... It is my understanding that people who cannot afford to pay are given free lunches but it doesn't appear that this is what is happening. Sad... kids are embarrassed because the first time they find out about it, they are already in the lunch line and in front of their friends. One girl here was found crying in the hallway by a teacher, and she was too embarrassed to go back into the cafeteria.
I've been behind on my school lunch bill and then just started making lunches. It's just cheaper. There are all kinds of cheap sandwiches, egg salad, cream cheese and olive. Raisins are cheap too. I do understand though that some people just don't have the money for either. We have a free school lunch program here, but you have to make so little to qualify that I don't think lunch would be your biggest problem. I don't think the cheese sandwich idea is so bad, though they could coordinate it better, not pulling kids out of the regular lunch line.
Latethink, at my school you were branded a misfit if you brought your lunch, so that wouldn't have helped. Kids are so regimented when they eat together.

(Besides, wouldn't egg salad having sat in your locker pretty much kill you?)
Not if you put it in wax or plastic, didn't kill me or my kids, but we live where it's cold.
What's also sad is that the school is probably scrimping on the quality of the cheese. You just know it's going to be that processed crap. I really feel bad for the kids. None of this is their fault.

By the way, I notice you used the "D" word (depression.) I certainly hope that you're wrong about that.

Great publication-ready piece as usual, Heather.
I'm with Silkstone. Why can't parents make their lunches? Whatever happened to personal reponsibility? I was poor growing up but I always had some kind of sandwich, a piece of fruit and a cookie for lunch. To this day I don't like sandwiches very much, but that's just me. I mad made my own lunches, and those of my brother and sister, from the time I was 8.

I understand that some people don't have money for food. But I don't believe that is the majority. The rest can make a bag lunch! It really doesn't take that much time or effort.
The mother in this story, Darlene Vigil, has enough money for a website detailing her trips to Reno and Vegas (http://www.darlenevigil.com) yet supposedly can't afford $2 to send with her kids for school lunch? And she's complaining that the FREE lunch provided by taxpayers isn't good enough for her kids? People like this make me sick.
awesome way to illustrate a detail that makes this story real. i can imagine how embarassing a cheese sandwich would be under these circumstances.