Zero graduating seniors at Robbinsdale Cooper High School will have their diplomas withheld this spring over unpaid school lunch debts.
But it isn’t because local officials have changed their minds about their meal-debts policies. And it’s not happening because state or federal authorities acted to address the needless funding constraints for meal programs that generate such debts.
The good news comes courtesy of Valerie Castile, whose son Philando was killed during a traffic stop by a former officer of the tiny St. Anthony, Minnesota, police department in July 2016. Castile delivered an $8,000 check to the school in late April that wipes out the money Cooper High would otherwise have held over some of the 300-plus kids finishing up their secondary schooling this spring.
The check is at least the third delivered to schools in the St. Paul area to erase student meal debts since Castile was killed by Jeronimo Yanez, who was later acquitted of homicide charges. The family has previously donated $45,000 to the broader St. Paul Public Schools system with the funds ticketed to the same purpose.
The Castile family has received tens of thousands of dollars from crowdfunding donors to support a foundation launched in Philando’s name. Before Yanez shot him as he tried to comply with the officer’s instructions, Philando was known for spending his own money to cover meal costs for kids who were short when they reached the register at the cafeteria he supervised.
“Instead of letting a child go hungry that day, he would pay for it himself,” Castile’s mother told local reporters in April. “This is something that Philando held near and dear to his heart.”
A gloomy reality lurks under the story’s heartwarming surface. It took a man being unjustly killed by police, and the generosity of strangers around the world, to deliver something public officials could do on their own if they made different choices about how much the United States will do to care for its most vulnerable kids.
Castile’s mother received a $3 million settlement in her wrongful death suit against local officials, who later paid his girlfriend another $800,000 in a separate case — more than the St. Anthony PD’s entire annual budget. The Philando Castile Relief Foundation has received more modest but substantial sums from private donors to carry on the slain man’s memory.
But the problem that money’s getting spent to fix doesn’t derive from some fixed law of nature. It’s the product of conscious choices made at all levels of public policymaking.
In theory, every public school student whose family is getting by on less than 130 percent of the federal poverty line (FPL) is eligible to get school meals paid for entirely by federal tax dollars. In practice, many of those eligible students still end up getting charged – and, when they can’t pay, getting punished for their family’s poverty through policies that bar them from school events or otherwise make their full membership in their school community contingent on their financial status.
Free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast reimbursements add up to about $13 billion a year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) stats. But anyone who falls short of what schools charge for meals in the reduced- or full-price food categories has to come up with the money on their own; federal policy bars schools from using any of their reimbursement funds to wipe their slates clean.
The school meal debt issue is typically characterized as a bureaucratic problem. Sometimes kids rack up debts unwittingly or incorrectly due to paperwork errors and other miscommunications. Though schools with high proportions of low-income students are eligible to extend free lunch to everyone through the federal program, many such districts haven’t jumped through the USDA hoops required to take that opportunity.
But at a more fundamental level, this isn’t about paperwork or percentages. The same federal country that’s spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a fighter plane that doesn’t work and billions more on combat ships that melt when you put them in water is choosing to get nickel-and-dime persnickety about whether or not poor kids can eat.
The resulting gap is getting covered – in some ways, and in some places – by generous private citizens. That’s a feel-good story of kids getting rescued from a painful limbo and parents being spared the isolating and shame-inducing harshness of the existing system. But it’s also a convulsive drama that doesn’t need to be staged at all.