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— The question of how serious the self-esteem problem is for alternative-meal kids pits the principals cited by Billings against many parents. Kirk Yale tells me by phone that a year ago his second-grade daughter came home from a district school "very distraught." Before she started through the lunch line, she was surprised that her white plastic card authorizing her to eat had been replaced with a red one. That signified that her parents were at least $5 behind on their school lunch bill. Yale's daughter told him, he says, that the other children immediately "made fun of her" for being poor. The girl's humiliation was also the first notice that he was in arrears, according to Yale.

Parents who began calling the red card a "scarlet letter" eventually convinced officials to get rid of it. They're not happy, however, with the district's halfhearted change. A black check mark on the white card still stands out on the upright boards that hold the cards where the children pick them up.

An odd aspect of Billings' attempt to defend his district's alternative-meal program was his praise of the cheese sandwich. Originally, the district said it chose the sandwich as such a boring entrée that it would make parents pay their bills. Why was Billings touting its popularity, especially in light of contrary evidence he had? A "Vote and Be Heard" study of menu choices recently released by the district showed what the kids like best. No surprises here. First on the "Menu Poll Results" page is Domino's Pizza, followed closely by generic pizza. At a greater distance behind, but still popular, stand chicken nuggets, burrito, nachos, cheeseburger, and hot dog. In dead last place, receiving but a single vote, is the cheese sandwich.

Besides stimulating payment of school lunch debts, serving the cheese sandwich is profitable for the district. Whenever it serves the alternative meal, the district charges the same price it does for regular menu meals, either $1.50 or 75 cents. On a "Food Cost Comparisons" sheet recently released by the district, a bean and cheese burrito showed a "total cost of meal" as 74 cents. For chicken nuggets, it was 60 cents. The cheese sandwich cost 54 cents, and the turkey-ham sandwich 45 cents. It's no wonder that the district agreed to the turkey-ham sandwich as a second version of the alternative meal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides school districts free commodities that become the ingredients in their National School Lunch meals. For example, they can get canned tomatoes. Whole and diced tomatoes are worth 4 cents per serving. Tomato sauce is worth 3 cents per serving, and tomato paste 1 cent. Cheeses come in a number of varieties, each worth 9 cents per serving. In the case of the cheese sandwich meal, free commodities drop the cost from 54 to 45 cents per meal.

Then there are the National School Lunch Program reimbursements. When the meal is for a student who pays $1.50, the program reimburses the district 23 cents per meal, for a total payment to the district of $1.73. For a reduced-price student, the program reimburses $2.07, for a total of $2.30, and for the no-pay student, it reimburses $2.47.

Critics say the district doesn't do enough to encourage low-income parents to sign up. If the parents don't enroll in the program, they send their children to school with (or without) a lunch. Or they pay the $1.50 price for the school lunch. Some of these parents enroll in the program later. If they are in arrears on their earlier school lunch bills, the school gives their children the alternative meal until those bills are paid.

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