Early last year, I told you about a Houston man, Kenny Thompson, who generously paid off the cafeteria meal debt of 60 students at the elementary school at which he serves as a mentor and tutor. He did so in the wake of several national news stories about kids being publicly shamed for having delinquent meal accounts, either by having their meal thrown out or by being offered a stigmatizing alternate meal like a cold cheese sandwich.
More recently, a friend from Houston ISD Nutrition Services introduced me via email to Thompson, who’s since gone on to create a nonprofit, Feed the Future Forward, that’s exclusively dedicated to relieving the meal debt of needy students.
Thompson was kind enough to let me interview him for The Lunch Tray and I share our Q & A below. In part two of this post, I’ll share the thoughts of the School Nutrition Association and other experts on the difficult topic of how to handle unpaid student meal debt.
Here’s my interview with Kenny Thompson:
TLT: Can you tell readers briefly how this all started for you? What led you to want to pay that first delinquent lunch account?
KT: It all started for me at a mentoring session in Spring Branch [a Houston neighborhood] just over a year ago. I witnessed a 4th grader’s lunch taken away and replaced with the alternative lunch (a cold cheese sandwich) because of a delinquent lunch account. After witnessing the shame and humiliation that went along with this and also being served a sub-par lunch, I knew I had to do something about it. This lead me to pay off the entire school’s delinquent lunch account balances.
TLT: So it was the alternative cheese sandwich meal that particularly bothered you?
KT: A school that would go to the extreme of feeding a child a cold cheese sandwich in lieu of a hot healthy meal is not good on so many levels. Nutrition is an integral part of a child’s success and overall performance in school. Not only is there a stigma that takes place when a child is served the alternative lunch, self-esteem is deeply affected. I feel that schools and districts can and should find a way to do better by our kids. I’m glad to say we have made great strides with districts and schools in our area in eliminating the serving of the alternative lunch.
TLT: I see that you’re now collecting donations from private individuals to pay off children’s delinquent accounts in districts around Texas. That outpouring of generosity is great, but what do you say to people who worry that donations aren’t a sustainable solution this problem?
KT: I worry too. I don’t have all the answers nor all the solutions. All I know is that we’ve got to find a better way to take care of our needier students with their lunches while they are at school. We have had great success over the past year with the donations from private citizens as well as our corporate sponsors. We as a community find ways to feed kids on weekends, load backpacks with school supplies, and provide uniform drives and haircuts. I have faith that together, collectively, we can find a way to feed our kids lunch while in school. A new federal government program (CEP) has been implemented into the school districts. This affected nearly two-thirds of Houston ISD’s 283 campuses. Spring Branch and Cy-Fair have implemented programs in their districts that have eliminated the serving of the alternative lunch. Nearly a dozen schools in HISD that I have visited have either never served or have stopped serving the alternative lunch. Districts, schools, and principals want to do better for our children. They want to find a way to stop serving the alternative lunch. There are a lot of things we can do better. Working with these schools, districts, and principals, and in keeping this a hot topic, we feel we are on the road to finding a permanent solution.
TLT: On the one hand, cafeterias using swipe cards reduce stigma for students because no one can tell which kids are eligible for free/reduced price lunch. But swipe cards can lead to more unpaid meal balances because kids can use them for a la carte snacks, instead of on school meals, without their parents’ knowledge. Do you have any thoughts on this?
KT: We have to find better ways of monitoring what the students are paying for in the lunch line. A la carte items have been a topic of conversation with not only students, but district personnel as well. I agree this is a tough one. My son is a 9th grader. I know he likes a bag of hot Cheetos and a slushie every now and then. Maybe like I do with his Internet usage, I put a flag on his account that keeps him from purchasing these items, or he’s only allowed to spend the cost of the school provided lunch daily. There are ways in keeping parents informed of what their child is eating and spending. More importantly, is the educating of the parents to available lunch programs and their financial obligations.
TLT: What are your long term plans for Feed the Future Forward?
KT: We take it week by week. If I had any long term plans, it would be for Feed the Future Forward to have made a difference with school or district policies and that they have found a way to budget for all our kids to eat while they are enrolled in their schools. Let’s tear down the walls between the haves and the have nots. Take the stigma out of the lunch room. This is an important topic not only for Feed the Future Forward, but for the school districts, principals, and most importantly, the students. I haven’t talked to anyone that has disagreed with me. These are children from our community. If it takes a village to raise a child, we are the village! These are our public schools. We are the public! My wife and I support many programs in the schools. We truly feel in our heart of hearts that this is a program that needs to be supported and addressed!
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to tell Lunch Tray readers about your efforts?
KT: Never in a million years did I think I would have made an impact in districts and schools with so many students in and around the Houston area in just over a year. But, I have a feeling why it has been such a great success. It’s because this is an important topic. It matters that this is taking place in our school systems. Meals thrown away; meals taken away and replaced with sub-par alternatives. Children being fed cold cheese sandwiches instead of the normal hot healthy nutritious fare of food. And, we expect our kids to stay focused and on task and score well on tests. Nutrition, plus education, equals performance. Nutrition being a key element in a child’s success is a no-brainer and eliminating the stigma that goes along with the alternative lunch is equally as important.
We have to find a way to take care of our students while at school. We support many of the other programs that enable a child to be successful in school. For many students, their best shot at eating is at school. I will continue to help in my own little way. I’ll do my part to keep this a topic of conversation in and around the schools in my area with the hopes that we will one day have a permanent solution to feeding our students while enrolled in school.
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I want to thank Kenny Thompson for taking the time to speak with me about his inspiring efforts. And stay tuned for part two of this post in the coming days.
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