Upscale liberal Kentfield discovers that scary phrase “We’re from the government, and we’re here to help”

Although constrained by the vapid, politically-correct curriculum coming out of California Department of Education, Marin County manages to have very good schools that produce students who are as well educated as is possible given the constraints of a union-controlled system.  A distinguishing characteristic of most Marin County schools is the fact that they are very, very small, sometimes numbering only a few hundred students.  In upscale communities such as Tiburon, Larkspur, and Kentfield, the facilities (all of which were fairly recently remodeled thanks to the generosity of Marin voters) are gorgeous — they look like country-clubs.  One of the ways these small schools were able to focus on making the classrooms, libraries, school grounds, and administrative offices lovely was to skip having a separate cafeteria.  In our neck of the woods, up until a few years ago kids got lunch either because the parents’ packed them one or because the PTA ran a food program, staffed entirely by volunteers.

A word about these volunteers:  they are, in significant part, the backbone of Marin County’s high-quality education.  Most of the volunteers are women, and most are educated at least through college, and many of them spent years, even decades, in high-powered jobs.  Once these hyper-successful women they realize that their kids are the most important job, they turn to their kids’ schools as an outlet for their intellectual energy and vast experience.  They help the kids put on school shows that, in terms of costumes and sets, could rival a quality off-Broadway production.  They appear daily in the kids’ classrooms to help with reading groups and generally put in face time.  When class parties roll around, these moms are out in force with food, drinks, entertainment, and goody bags.

One of the main services many of these moms support with their time and effort is PTA sponsored lunches.  In my experience, the PTA doesn’t actually make the food.  Instead, it’s a facilitator from a reputable third-party provider (Kid Chow, for example), which prepares tasty, healthy food in a fully licensed food-preparation facility.  The PTA moms then show up at the school every day to take delivery, to sort the orders, and to hand out the food to the kids.  In return for this, the PTA asks parents to pay a premium price for the food, with the difference between the food’s cost and the parent’s actual outlaw being put to all sorts of PTA programs aimed at advancing the children’s education.  It is a win-win:  parents don’t have to make lunches for the kids, the kids get healthy food, a good organization such as Kid Chow makes a profit, and the PTA makes money that it puts right back into the kids’ education.

There’s only one problem with this wonderful system:  the government doesn’t like it, as one of the posher school districts has just discovered (emphasis mine):

The Kentfield School District, under fire from state education officials, is defending the legality of its volunteer-run school lunch program against claims it violates California law.

Prompted by an anonymous complaint, the state Department of Education sent a letter to Kentfield Schools Superintendent Mary Jo Pettigrew last month ordering the district to take over the lunch program from the Parent Teacher Association. The letter said the program, which has been run by the PTA for years at Bacich Elementary School and Kent Middle School, violates numerous sections of state education code.

“The CDE is requiring the (district) to dismiss the (PTA) from this activity and assume responsibility for the school meal program as required in State law,” the letter states.

In its letter, the state takes issue with the PTA’s practice of running a lunch program with volunteers and using extra revenues to fund school programs, books and equipment. The letter cites state law requiring school districts to oversee food service, employ staff for school lunch and use cafeteria revenues only for expenses only, among other provisions.

I’ll readily concede that some of the parents in the school district were raising legitimate complaints about the PTA program:

It is not clear which specific complaint sparked the state’s crackdown, but several parents have criticized the Kentfield lunch program in the past year. Last year, a group of parents complained the PTA was serving cheap food to cut costs so it could recoup more money to donate for school programs.

“Every day of the week it was really low quality food,” said Benjamin Wang, a father who has been critical of the food program.

Wang said he is one of several parents who have contacted state and federal officials about the lunch program, but it is not clear who prompted the Department of Education’s letter.

These parents are deluding themselves, though, if they think that bringing the government into the matter will improve the kids’ dining choices.  Government-kitchens are renowned for serving food that kids loath, a problem made worse by Michelle Obama’s “healthy food” mandate.  If parents want their kids to have decent food, they can pack them a brown-bag lunch.  If they want convenience, they’d do a lot better to work with the PTA and see the money go back to the school, than to bring the government in, watch food quality decline even further, lose revenue for PTA-sponsored educational programs, and fund even more union employment.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • NavyOne

    Very interesting. I have never heard of a school, high school or junior high school, having a lunch program run by the PTA. Of course, I did not grow up in Marin. On one hand, I commend the parents for taking a role in their children’s lives, on the other hand, it seems overbearing. . .

  • Bookworm

    Mostly, NavyOne, it’s about fundraising.  Back in the day, these little, cafeteria-free schools didn’t have any lunch program at all.  It was all brown-bagging.  The PTA instituted the “hot lunch” program (not that the lunches are always hot) as a way to do fundraising for more extracurricular and academic programs.  For the PTA members, it’s a way to do for volunteer work; for the parents, it’s a convenience; and for the school, it’s addition money for programs the tax base and state can’t afford.

  • heather

    So what about kids who get gov’t “free” lunch and breakfast?  How do the schools get away without having a cafeteria to provide it?  Or do those kids get the fancy-pants take-out lunches also?  If so, who foots the bill? The PTA or the gov’t/taxpayer?

    Surely there must be a few kids who qualify . . . . Here in Va, for a family of six to get free lunch benefits, income must fall below $55,000 (give or take a few thousand, I can’t remember the exact numbers).

  • ceruleanbill

    The quality of writing and thought on this web site is why I read it, even though I’m a liberal.

  • Ymarsakar

    That which humanity has built with sweat, blood, and tears for tens of years, the Left will shatter in a scintilla of effort.

    Such is the essence of evil, that it brings down all that good has ever accomplished. 

    Japanese culture mostly promotes bentos or boxed lunches that are conveniently carried around, with various semi private economic systems to provide backup for those that can’t bring or cook their own lunches. Namely, a lot of the duties of the PTA are actually carried out by the Student Council in a high school. It’s a better outlet for over achievers and those seeking some real adult responsibility training. The teachers may meet with parents, but the parents either leave the system to the private education facility (often modeled on pre WWI British boarding schools) or are barely on the radar when it comes to participation. The responsibility isn’t pushed on the parents, but on the teachers to be ideal role models and the students to start learning how to become mature.

    In the US, perhaps because the teachers are rendered incompetent and powerless, more must necessarily be invested in the PTA, and that’s why it works so well. Until it doesn’t, that is, because that school is NOT private and doesn’t really get to ‘decide anything’.

  • Charles Martel

    Heather, Kentfield is a very affluent area, so there would be, at best, only a handful of students poor enough to qualify for “free” government lunches. Most likely the school’s informal, internal principal-parents network would take care of it very discreetly, making sure that poor kids receive lunches with no fanfare and no questions asked.
    This is one of the advantages an affluent school district has, as Book mentions above with her description of a well educated, activist group of moms. Even though most of them subscribe on paper to strong government, they’ve had enough unsettling experiences with government inefficiency and interference in their previous business lives to realize that the last thing they want is a government agency squatting on their turf and destroying the well-functioning system that’s already there.
    Contrast that with the dysfunctional schools in big-city districts where stressed parents not only have no real knowledge of how to run a bureaucratic maze, but have been softened up by two generations of a mentality that says it is the government’s job, not theirs, to feed their children. 

  • lee

    My experience with volunteer organizations is that there are a handful of really energetic take-charge people who run things for a few years. They either tire out, or their kids graduate, and the volunteers move one, leaving a group who have followed the leader for so long, they really don’t know how to run things, and are not sure what they need to do. It take a year, or two, or three, or four, possibly five, and eventually, the leaders rise to the surface to take charge again.

    My guess is the PTA in Kentfield is like this. Some one, or handful, of parents did a GREAT job at running this program. They moved, or their kids all graduated, and no one was left who could really do it as well, or manage the resources quite the same. Whereas once, the kids in Kentfield has FANTASTIC lunchs, possibly, they now have merely mediocre, (But still no doubt better than what most school lunches are like…)

    My mom was a school teacher in Indiana when her school district changed from individual cafeterias, to a central kitchen. Since it the district did this based on state requirements, what also happened was that the cafeteria went from little government interference, to LOTS of government intereference. (But still MUCH, MUXH less than what there is today.)

    The food had been actually pretty good BEFORE, but the after was AWFUL–tastless, overcooked, starchy… Ick. It was so bad. There were a lot of poor kids in that school, and before hand, they got one really good meal a day. Afterwards, they were miserable–they refused to eat the swill in the cafeteria. And what they got from home, if they brought their lunch, was pretty bad–usally chips, a twinkie, and peanut butter crackers. But at least they got some calories from that. By refusing to eat the awful lunch, they were incredibly hungry by about 1.

    (One of the things that pained the cafeteria workers with the change was that all uneaten food was required to be thrown away. What had frequently been done before was that desserts were given away at the end of the day to whomever wanted to take home a little extre peanut butter bar or brownie… Now it ALL had to be chucked in the garbage.)

  • Danny Lemieux

    Charles Hammer, you would be surprised about that “handful”. Our school district is upper middle-class that is seeing a major influx of immigrants (mostly Russian and Asian). They buy very nice homes but many of their children qualify for free food in the local schools. How can that be? 

    Well, my guess is that many of these immigrants brought their homeland values of tax evasion and money-under-the-table economics to our country. They are swimming in money but have no qualms about living off the government when the government forces these benefits upon them (i.e. me and thee). 

  • Bookworm

    Thank you, Ceruleanbill.  I think that flatters every one of us here!

  • Pingback: Maggie's Farm()

  • Pingback: School Lunches in Marin County « White Rock Kitchens()

  • DL Sly

    The phrase “Be careful what you wish for.  You just may get it.” comes to mind.

  • Les

    Danny, I think in many instances it’s done the old fashioned way.  I know of many Asian families where both parents worked, some saving enough to buy their own business and building on that. Some just continue working.  They don’t spend a lot on big ticket items and the cost of living is lower in their neighborhood.  Eventually they save up more than enough for the down payment on a house and buy one.  However, their take home pay is still low so their kids still get a subsidized lunch.  This process has always amazed me.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Lee, here is another way that works. During the real estate boom, we had Russian families in our neighborhood that would sell/flip houses between family members to artificially inflate the prices. They would then out huge home equity homes against the houses and live off the loans. They probably never declared incomes and qualified for entitlements.


  • Pingback: Bookworm Room » California Department of Education fights school district for daring to spend money on children’s education.()