When your child’s lunch is repossessed — and other communication failures that need a little civic hacking

Kids eating school lunch, one smiling with a half-eaten apple
Photo Credit: Bread for the World

This week a Salt Lake City elementary school made nationwide news when several dozen children who were given a school lunch were then humiliated by having it taken away and thrown in the garbage. The problem was not with the food or the kids. From the school administrator’s perspective, it was the necessary response to those children’s parents’ failure to maintain their lunch accounts.

And failure there most unquestionably was. The event represented a failure of management since the effort to alert parents about accounts was late and not fully successful. It represented a failure of policy since it’s doubtful that the cost of subsidizing a few lunches outweighs the cost of having hungry children in school. Finally, it represented a very serious failure of basic human empathy because what kind of person doesn’t recognize the shame and waste involved with publicly taking and throwing away children’s lunches?

While the specific outcomes in this case are uncertain, it happens to point to a pervasive problem across the U.S. education system. The nation’s 12,880 school districts have yet to collectively figure out a successful method for regular all-parent communication. In a period with so much change and year-to-year difference across curricula, learning interventions and software, there is really quite a bit of material for two-way communication and yet regular parent communication still often happens through notes in backpacks. Despite the need for good communication, less than half of those surveyed about their experiences with traditional public schools report being “very satisfied” with the way their school communicates with parents.

Meanwhile, schools have a tremendous need for smooth communication paths with parents on a variety of issues. Schools these days regularly need to communicate with parents about safety, a top-level concern for many parents in this age of routinized lockdowns and active shooter drills. Teachers seek to make parents active partners in student learning. Teachers, social workers and aides scramble to effectively coordinate around social service provision. The fact that communication around school lunch is problematic is emblematic of a school  larger problem of finding effective methods of communicating with the entire school community — even those who are more difficult to reach.

Furthermore, given the ways that school issues overlap with other areas of local government and local philanthropy, a failure of communication is a failure to provide service. In Utah, this school lunch event has spurred an interest in charitable donations to the school because people don’t want to see children go hungry. If the school had been able to connect on this issue with these donors before the episode, that might have provided an additional level of food security for possibly needy families — and at any rate, helped to spare the children the immediate shame of having food taken away.

This area is a ripe one for civic hacking: the creative use of technology to solve civic problems. Volunteer groups like Code for America brigades work to find ways to use technology to — among other things — solve problems of communication between government and hard to reach populations. Code for America in San Mateo, Calif., worked specifically on the problem of improving coordination among food safety net providers and the people they serve.

The public mass repossession of children’s lunched is a tangible and obvious case of institutional communication gone wrong. However, it’s just the tip of a large and less obvious iceberg. The faster the pace of educational change, the better that school-community communication needs to be — and yet we still haven’t seen the solutions for making this happen. Civic hacking offers one possible and promising approach for improving the flow of information within this relationship.

Anyone looking for a project? I think there’s a school district in Utah that needs you…