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Tossing out good food is not the way to get parents to pay

December 30, 2005

Let's see if we can get this straight. In the Washington County Public Schools, elementary school students whose parents haven't paid for their lunches will still get fed, but only with sandwiches.

But if they've already put a slice of pizza on their tray and the cashier discovers that they're in arrears, the pizza is removed and a sandwich is substituted.

Then the pizza or other item is thrown away, because it's already come in contact with the child.

So in other words, if a child's meal charges haven't been paid, then the food he or she can't afford is tossed out and a sandwich is put on the tray instead. The child who can't pay for one lunch is served two instead, but one ends up in the garbage can.

There's got to be a better way, especially when the deficit caused by this sort of behavior was less than $20,000 last year.

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That's not to say parents who can afford to pay meal costs shouldn't be assessed those charges. But they're not the ones standing in line when someone is taking food off their plate. We would bet that the majority on non-paying parents do not skimp on their own dietary preferences.

Here are our suggestions. Station someone at the beginning of the lunch line to ascertain whose charges have been paid. Give those students whose accounts are past due a ticket that's good for only a sandwich, some vegetables and fruit.

As for the parents who can afford to pay but don't, the school system could turn their names over to a collection agency, which would then take those who continue to resist paying to small claims court.

Yes, this last tactic would probably increase the animosity between parents and school officials. But we would wager that parents who can afford to pay for their children's meals, but don't do so aren't partnering with the school system on much else, either.

What the school system's food-service arm is doing now is attempting to coerce small children into getting their parents to behave themselves. By middle school or high school, most students are more than capable of doing that.

Until they get older, let's give the little ones a break and come down on the real bad apples - parents who can pay the bills, but choose not to do so.

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