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Originally published January 10, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 28, 2007 at 2:00 PM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

School meal is poor substitute for home-cooked involvement

In the past few years, seven of every 10 kids in Washington eligible for a free breakfast at school declined the offer and ate at home. When I heard that statistic...

In the past few years, seven of every 10 kids in Washington eligible for a free breakfast at school declined the offer and ate at home. When I heard that statistic, it perked me up. I thought, "I hope more of them do that."

The social-service industry thinks otherwise. One of its principal lobbies, the Children's Alliance, paid a visit to The Seattle Times the other day to promote its proposals for the Legislature — a Legislature likely to be favorable. One of the group's proposals was that the state should pay for a free lunch to kids from families in the $26,000-to-$37,000 income bracket for a family of four. These kids have been offered a lunch that is reduced in price but not free.

The state has already done this with breakfast. It was the first state to do so, and the Children's Alliance is proud of that. At 30 cents, reduced-price breakfasts had been ignored by 83 percent of the eligible kids. Starting this school year, these breakfasts are priced at zero and more kids are eating them. To the advocates, that is a good thing and shows that the same should be done with lunch.

I am uneasy about it. When I was in school in Lynnwood in the 1960s, breakfast and lunch were the parents' responsibility, and I never heard there was a problem. The school offered a hot lunch for a cheap price. Some kids bought lunch and some brought one from home and bought milk. Some kids had more lavish lunches than others, but I never heard of any who regularly missed lunch or who came to school without breakfast.

Of course, I didn't know every kid. Years later, my wife, who immigrated to America in the 1970s, told me that when she had arrived in Seattle she sublet a room from a waitress with two kids. The waitress provided those kids with less-decent food than the dog. The kids sometimes ate the dog's food, while the mother spent the money on time with her boyfriend and her sports car. To those kids, eating with their friends at school would be a gain, at least nutritionally.

The system I grew up with didn't accommodate families like that. Today's system does. But it does so, in Seattle, by qualifying 38 percent of the kids for free meals. Whenever the media cover this program, they tend to do it in celebratory style, not thinking that by attacking one problem we may be aggravating another.

There is value in having breakfast at home. At the breakfast table you can ask your kid about his homework, and what's he's doing after school, and whether he has brushed his teeth and whether he has those forms you were supposed to sign. You can see whether he's sick, or whether he has changed his shirt. You can police his table manners and buck him up for the big test on Friday. You can listen to his worries and his proposals. You can be there. Not every parent can do this, but many can, and it is a good thing.

Teachers tell us the way to help our kids in school is parental involvement. We hear it again and again — and it is true.

As for the kids who can't get breakfast at home, maybe we have to make it available at school. The system is there, the habit is formed and the monetary cost is not so much. But let's stop boasting about how wonderful it is, as if a meal at school is an improvement over one at home. In most cases, it's not. It's an institutional substitute.

It is also one more example of government helping families by relieving them of their jobs. This is the progressive mantra: Whatever parents fail to provide, the government provides, all the way down to pancakes with syrup and a glass of milk.

There is a certain logic to it — no child left behind — but also a nagging thought: Sometimes the less the family is expected to do, the less it does.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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