Monday, July 30, 2007

The Canary In The Coal Mine, or, “Birdie?... BIRDIE?!”

Lake Superior contains roughly ten percent of the world’s surface freshwater and is the habitat for 78 fish species. Lake Superior appears to be in great distress.

As reported by the Associated Press reporter John Flesher, efforts are underway to try to fully assess the damage done.

“Something seems amiss with mighty Superior, the deepest and coldest of the Great Lakes which together hold nearly 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water.”

“Superior’s surface area is roughly the same as South Carolina’s, the biggest of any freshwater lake on Earth. It’s deep enough to hold all the Great Lakes plus three additional Lake Eries. Yet over the past year, its level has ebbed to the lowest point in eight decades and will set a record this fall if, as expected, it dips three more inches.”

Some other worrisome observations:

Superior’s average temperature has increased 4.5 degrees since 1979. Think what it would take to change a mass like that, that much. And in a lake with an average temperature of 40 degrees, a recent weather buoy reading of 75 degrees was recorded on the western side.

Lake Superior has lost a foot of elevation in the past year, leaving many mooring sites and marinas unusable. Ferry service between Grand Portage, MN and Isle Royal National Park was scaled back because one of the company’s boats couldn’t dock.

Game fish have headed out and are harder to find – distressing the tourist industry (which is critical to the area).

Low water has cost the shipping industry millions of dollars since vessels have been forced to lighten their loads.

Much more about this can be found in the article:

It seems to me that anyone who wastes time arguing that the climate isn’t changing – and fast, just isn’t paying attention. And maybe arguing that humans are or aren’t responsible is superfluous as well. What we should be arguing about is what to do about it.

The candidates for President, therefore, need to have a clear and detailed plan on how to address this potentially most serious of all problems. For me (and one third of members) the candidate who best achieves this is John Edwards.

Full details of his proposal are available at:

Democracy is not a spectator sport.


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Republican Mayoral Candidate's Fiscal Record In Question

In a Michiana Point Of View submission published July 20, 2007 in the South Bend Tribune, Republican Mayoral candidate Juan Manigault suggests that we should evaluate candidates for office based upon their past record(s). He should be careful what he wishes for.

On June 7, 2002 The South Bend Tribune published an article by Keith Benman entitled “Nonprofit Pays Out $228,088 to Correct Faulty Bookkeeping”. Which non-profit was that? -- The Northern Indiana Workforce Investment Board. Who was (and is) it’s President? – Juan Manigault.

According to the Tribune “The Workforce Investment Board paid most of that money to accountants from BKD LLP, of Indianapolis who are reconstructing the agency’s books going back to July of 1999.”

It continues “The reconstruction was ordered last year by Indiana Workforce Development, which had found WIB staff costs paid for with federal grants had never been sufficiently accounted for. Staff costs made up about one quarter of WIB’s $13 million budget last year. If staff costs cannot be accounted for after the books are reconstructed, the money may have to (be) paid back. Municipal and county governments in the four county (St. Joseph, Elkhart, Kosciusko and Marshall) area would have to come up with any money owed, forcing local taxpayers to possibly foot the bill.”

Mr. Manigault’s observation at the time was curiously Bush-like: “I think we will be pleasantly surprised when this is all done, and one of the surprises may be the way we did things was not incorrect.”

Obviously if there was any truth to what Mr. Manigault said, the Board wouldn’t have needed to spend nearly a quarter million dollars of unbudgeted taxpayer money. Perhaps that’s just walking around money to Mr. Manigault, but to many of us a few chunks of cash like that start to add up to real money. Remember, the potential was it could turn out to be even more expensive for us.

So what was the outcome? I don’t know.

Oddly, the South Bend Tribune never did a follow-up story, despite the fact there were many unanswered questions and the potential costs involved. (I verified this recently with one of their editors).

It seems to me that Mr. Manigault and The South Bend Tribune have some questions to answer. I encourage my fellow citizens to start asking the questions.

Democracy is not a spectator sport.

On Data Collection, Or, Help Us Learn More About "Alternate Lunch"

Regular readers will know that this is the third in a series of stories that have addressed the practice of serving “alternate lunches” to students whose parents owe the school for lunch money.
For those who are seeing this series for the first time, a quick recap:

From On Teaching Debt Collection To Kids, Or, Here’s The Outrage Of The Week:
“...One form of “lost dollars” has historically been the money owed by parents for school lunches that are essentially provided “on credit”. Basically what happens is a kid might forget his lunch money that day...and the school covers the money until they can collect the debt...

...With that in mind, it’s no surprise that schools would look for ever-more-creative ways to collect debts; but even considering all that I found myself shocked by this LA Times article entitled: “On school menus: cheese sandwiches, parental debt”...

...If a parent owes the district more than $5 in meal money...the district will basically...repossess lunch...

...Picture two second-graders in the cafeteria line. As they get to the yummy pizza, the first little girl gets her slice of pepperoni. But not the second girl. She gets a cheese sandwich. That’s right-this school district, and numerous others nationwide, have special school lunch “options” for those students who have parents that owe money-and in Calloway County, Kentucky, it only takes $3.00

To make things worse, the story discusses the practice of finding nutritious, but unappetizing, foods that can be offered to the kids to shame them into getting the money from their parents.

Additionally, the story pointed to several independent sources that suggest using food as a tool for debt collection in the lunchroom is counteracting the lessons taught right down the hall in the classrooms by the USDA’s “Team Nutrition” program-a $500 million dollar annual investment in grants and other aid used by virtually all school districts to teach our kids healthier eating habits.

Of course, there’s a lot more than $500 million at stake-heart attack, stroke, and diabetes are all frequently traced to unhealthy diet, and the cost of those disorders runs into the tens, and perhaps hundreds, of billions of dollars annually.

Part two of the story (On Facts And Figures, Or, Over 187 Billion Served) is a dollars and cents, facts and figures kind of story-where the funding for school meals (more or less $37 billion) comes from, and where it goes, how many kids are served (about 9 million daily), and lots more detailed number crunching.

Did you know the School Lunch Program was not started out of an interest in serving America’s poor? Did you know it was originally conceived because of National Security concerns? That was also some of the ground we covered in part two; as well as the often unrecognized relationship between the Program and the Black Panthers.

We also talked about our desire to create a survey that you, the reader, might administer to your local school districts so that a national perspective might be obtained.

Finally, it was announced that the parents that are at the heart of all of this have contacted me, that they have created an email address (; and that they would enjoy your messages of support.
Having thus dealt with the old business; let us now move on to new business.

First, “informed sources” tell me that Fabian Nuñez, the Speaker of the California State Assembly, has become aware of this issue and may be investigating the problem in the near future. (To get an idea about where the Speaker stands on these sorts of issues, check out the video of the Speaker and Michael Moore discussing “Sicko” at its US premiere.)

To help get the ball rolling, I’d like to ask the community to take a second and encourage the Speaker with a quick email (use the “Contact the Speaker” link at the very bottom right corner or bottom center of the page) complimenting him on this interest and maybe even pointing out that he’s a generally nice guy-which, from a distance, he seems to be. (For purposes of disclosure, Nuñez is associated with the Hilary Clinton campaign.)

Next, we have a fact, we have two. More about that in a minute.

But before we put up the surveys, I want to talk about the options for returning the results.

The survey will be on this page-so you can copy and paste the version you want to use; and then either print the questions or copy them to a digital device, like a phone, BlackBerry or PDA.

If you are text-savvy, the results won’t need to be typed-but for the rest of us, we have two ways to avoid the typing process after the survey is completed.

One is to fax the results to the parents at (206) 312-1612.

The other option is a little different, and I’ll take a second to walk through what you do
There is a website in India called NowPos (NowPossible...) that allows you to create voice emails using a microphone attached to your computer; and this will allow you to “dictate” the results, and then send that email to the address. You’ll have to create an account to do this, but there is no charge for the service.

And finally, we discuss the surveys.

Basically what we are trying to do is get the “nuts and bolts” of how local districts treat the “alternate lunch” question and information about Federal meal reimbursement. There are also a series of questions that focus on whether Districts employ an outside contractor to manage their foodservice programs.

There are two versions of the survey, a 52 question version, and a 26 question version. It is estimated that the longer version will take about 30 to 45 minutes to complete, but the shorter version will provide the most basic information if a respondent is reluctant to offer that much time.

We encourage you to direct the survey to a School District’s food service director-alternatively, an assistant superintendent or other similar manager should be able to answer many of these questions. To quote from the survey itself:

“To begin, call your school district child nutrition service office or food service office and ask to speak with someone familiar with the process for handling past due payments on student meal accounts.”

The parents would also like to be informed if a District refuses to complete the survey. In that event, please send an email to the address with the details.

Because of issues realted to how this site formats text, I was not able to add the larger spaces required between questions for "Other" responses, and I apologize to the community in advance for this inability. I suggest using a seperate page or the back of the survey you've printed for those responses.

by Fake Consultant ( (Advice From A Fake Consultant)

(Editor's note: Either survey can be obtained in fake consultant's original post, or by request to )

Monday, July 23, 2007

John Edwards Fires Up His Populism

By Eric Pooley/Huntington, West Virginia

After three days on the road with John Edwards in some of the poorest places in America, it's not only the depth of human need that hits you, but the layered and interlocking complexity of it -- the way a complete lack of health care, for instance, can all by itself consign someone to ignorance and joblessness. But you're also struck by how so many of the people who have been dealt these difficult hands manage to play them with grace and fortitude. That may sound trite to some ears, but it probably wouldn't to anyone who has spent time with James Lowe.

Lowe is 51 years old, a disabled coal miner from the hollows of Eastern Kentucky. He has never been one to get up in front of a crowd. Until last year, he wouldn't have been able to speak to the crowd even if he wanted to. He was born with a severe cleft palate; when he tried to talk he could not make himself understood, so after a while he stopped trying. He was one of 10 children, born to parents too poor to pay for the treatment he needed, and of course there was no insurance. Embarrassed by his condition, Lowe dropped out of school in fifth grade without learning to read or write, and eventually followed his father into the mines -- and still couldn't afford treatment. Twenty-three years ago he was partially paralyzed in a mining accident and could no longer perform manual labor. That didn't leave him many options.

Lowe lived a mute and by his own account diminished life for five decades in all before he finally got a break last year. He made it happen by standing in line for 13 hours at the Wise Country Fairgrounds in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where a nonprofit volunteer group called the Rural Area Medical Health Expedition once a year provides free medical and dental treatment to all comers. For thousands of men and women like Lowe who crowd the health fair every year, it represents the only medical care they ever receive. The dentists couldn't help Lowe on the spot but got him in to see someone who could, and now he has a dental prosthesis that allows him to speak pretty well. And so here he was on Wednesday morning -- back at the fairgrounds rung by red-clay cliffs and sitting in front of the national media beside former Senator John Edwards and a group of health advocates, all because he wanted to say thank you to the people who had helped him. "We grew up hard, had nothing," he said, slim as a stick, with thick brown hair combed straight back from a well-worn face that's anchored by a salt-and-pepper goatee. "But what these people done for me made me feel like a whole different person."

Lowe seemed to be tolerating rather than enjoying all the attention, and he looked a bit startled when Edwards, kicking off the third and final day of his eight-state poverty tour, seized on his story and got angry on his behalf. "We have to do something about this! This is not okay!" the candidate said. "How can we allow this to happen, that James had to live 50 years without treatment? Are you listening? This is America's problem. And let me tell you, as long as I am alive and breathing I'm going to do something about it!"

Edwards told James Lowe's story at every stop for the rest of the day, and not only because it was a powerful way to mention that the universal health care he proposes has a guaranteed dental benefit. Edwards talked about him because Lowe is the kind of person he knew growing up in the Carolinas, and his story made a powerful connection. This was the day the Edwards poverty tour rolled into John Edwards's own part of the country, and surrounded by working people the candidate caught fire on their behalf. "James told us how grateful he was to be able to talk -- something he has spent almost all his life not being able to do," Edwards said in Prestonburg, Kentucky, later that day, at the big rally that ended his tour in the same place where Senator Robert F. Kennedy finished his own poverty tour 40 years ago. "Instead of being angry about it, James was proud. He was strong. He showed the kind of character that I think represents what America is. These people, people like my father, people like James Lowe, they're the people who built America -- not these people on Wall Street."

Edwards' populism was heating up -- and threatening to boil over. Though he had sometimes seemed distracted on this tour, as if holding something back during so many sessions with so many needy people, his passion had been building since the night before in Pittsburgh, as he weaved stories from the past two days into his remarks and brought into sharp focus the themes of his poverty tour: That it is wrong for millions of Americans to have no medical care. That it is wrong for millions of Americans to work full time yet live in poverty. And on Wednesday he began linking the problems of the poor to the economic anxieties of the middle class in a way he had not often done over the previous two days. It's a linkage he'll undoubtedly make again and again as he builds his message in the coming months and tries to reinvigorate his campaign. "I've been asked by some of the media, 'Senator, the two Americas you talk about, is it the rich and the poor?' No. It's not. The two Americas are the very rich and everybody else."

If our politics are entering a new populist phase, Edwards isn't about to be left behind. On Wednesday in Prestonburg, the same day Barack Obama was delivering a speech on urban poverty, Edwards went after the fat cats in his own income bracket with real fervor. "We have the greatest economic inequality we've had in America since the great Depression," he said. "We're now made up of a few rich people who are doing extremely well and everybody else. Washington's response has been 'Greed is good. Take care of the lobbyists. Take care of the special interests.' There's another two Americas that exist in this country: there's one for the lobbyists, for the special interests, for the powerful, for the big multinational corporations and there's another one for everybody else. Well I'm here to say that their America is over!"

He didn't spell out how he intended to shut down the America of the influence peddlers, but nobody really expected him to. It was a satisfying moment for the hundreds of people in the crowd, who shouted lustily as Edwards thundered away. At a press conference after the speech, Edwards was asked how he'll respond to the inevitable accusations of class warfare. "I would say that we have in fact two different Americas," he replied. "It's a reality. I'm not against people doing well. I'm a leading example of someone who has done extremely well. Elizabeth and I have everything you could ever have. But the problem today is that the opportunities are being denied. That's actually why I'm running for President. If you call wanting to give everybody a chance 'class warfare,' then so be it. That's what I'm for."

Whatever else happens to Edwards this year, whatever his candidacy becomes, it matters that he spent three days talking about the problems of people like James Lowe. Maybe Edwards succeeds in linking those problems to the concerns of the middle class and ignites his candidacy. And maybe he doesn't. Either way, he did some good this week and won at least one vote. "It means the world to me that he come down here," said James Lowe. "He's talking about helping working people? He's listening to people like me? To me, that means everything."

On Facts And Figures, Or, Over 187 Billion Served

A story has recently made itself known in this space that has become more than a one-day event, and as a result we will be doing some follow-ups.

The complexity of the story requires that we discuss the nuts and bolts of the larger environment within which the story is contained, and we will do that today. The story: the substitution of an “alternate meal” to force payment from parents of school kids who owe the school for unpaid meals. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s perhaps because you saw my earlier story describing the practice, or, for that matter, onecrankydem’s.
Since then, there have been new developments.

To begin, the parents who started all of this in the first place have contacted me with additional information. For a variety of reasons (including my desire to offer the Chula Vista Elementary School District a chance to respond) we won’t be discussing that today, however. I’m also trying to get more information by contacting experts in the child nutrition, education, and mental health communities (yes, actual reporting!), and through a search of the available literature.

The parents have also begun the process of creating a survey that we will use to develop a larger data collection program to really understand how the “alternate lunch” programs work nationwide; and I’ll be asking for your help with this effort soon. So stay tuned. With that addressed, let’s move forward.

In order to properly build “the rest of the story” we need to create a foundation upon which our project may be built, and that will be the focus of today’s conversation.

“It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States, through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, and expansion of nonprofit school-lunch programs.”
--National School Lunch Act of 1946, Section 2 (emphasis added)

School lunches as national security?What’s that all about?

It’s about the roughly 10% of World War II Selective Service registrants who were rejected for service because of the apparent effects of malnutrition or underfeeding; this according to Major General Lewis B. Hershey in his testimony to Congress in the run-up to the passage of the Act.

How much of an impact does the National School Lunch Program have? In the 2004-2005 school year almost 95% of schools (98,000 plus) participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which means 29.1 million kids had access to meals served under the auspices of the program every school day. The USDA reports that over 187 billion lunches have been served since 1946.

Cash expenditures (not counting commodity donations) for the NSLP were $7 billion in fiscal year 2005.
There’s also a School Breakfast Program, and about ¾ of the schools that participate in the NSLP also are involved in the Breakfast program. More about this later.

From the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s “National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet”: “How does the National School Lunch Program work? Generally, public or nonprofit private schools of high school grade or under and public or nonprofit private residential child care institutions may participate in the school lunch program. School districts and independent schools that choose to take part in the lunch program get cash subsidies and donated commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for each meal they serve. In return, they must serve lunches that meet Federal requirements, and they must offer free or reduced price lunches to eligible children. School food authorities can also be reimbursed for snacks served to children through age 18 in afterschool educational or enrichment programs.”

Cash subsidies, you say? Tell us more... I will, but as so often happens, I’ll tell the story backwards. Why? Because in order to understand cash subsidies, you need to know about the different types of lunches.
So here’s how it works. All kids are permitted to purchase meals under the two programs (breakfast and lunch), but...

...If you are a family of four, earning less than 130% of the poverty level ($21,580), your kids can have Free meals.
...If your family receives Food Stamps, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), or participates in the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), your kids also receive Free meals.
...If your family of four earns less that 185% of the poverty level ($30,710) your kids can purchase the Reduced Price meal.
All students with family incomes above the 185% level can purchase the Paid meal.
For every Free lunch served the USDA pays the District a subsidy of $2.40. The subsidy is $2.00 for each Reduced Price lunch; Paid lunches garner an “administrative subsidy” of $.23 each.

Of the 29.5 million students participating in the NSLP, 17.5 million were receiving Free or Reduced Price lunches.
The National PTA estimates that some of these kids get half their daily nutrition at school.

The Districts are not limited in the amount they can charge for Paid lunches (the average nationwide is $1.80 for the '06-'07 school year); but they are limited to charging no more than $.40 for the Reduced Price lunch. Districts, obviously, cannot charge for the Free lunch.

“Snacks” are also subsidized under the Act; and in 2004 it was $.61, $.30, and $.05 for each of the three categories.
Additionally, the Districts receive “USDA commodity foods” worth $.1675 per meal-and possibly even “bonus” commodities in some circumstances (see "Government Cheese" for more details).

Additional subsidies exist, but we’re not bureaucrats, so we’ll move on.
How many people know that the School Breakfast Program and the Black Panther Party are linked in history?
The Federal Breakfast Program was initiated as a pilot project in 1966, but was not established nationwide until 1975. In the meantime the Black Panthers had been operating their own program (feeding as many as 10,000 every morning in Oakland alone); and it has been suggested that the Panther’s program shamed the Federal Government into making their Breakfast program permanent. (Are you a history buff? Here’s Huey Newton writing about the program in 1969.)

The Breakfast Program today has grown into about half the size of the Lunch Program (82,000 schools, 9.6 million students served, $3 billion in budget).

Reimbursement rates are $1.31, $1.01, and $.24 for the three categories of meals.

There is a second means of operating a school lunch program-the Provision 2 process. This is a method of funding that places all meals in one reimbursement category-and provides all meals for all students at no charge.

The reimbursement rate is designed to be lower than if the District collected cash for meals; but the administrative savings created by not handling cash or verifying family income eligibility every year can offset the rate difference-making this an excellent choice for many districts. (Districts must verify income eligibility once every four years.)
Nutrition is a component of the Programs we have not addressed. The Guidelines for the Programs can be seen here.
That’s a lot for one night, so I’ll leave with a final note:

The parents that are trying to get this practice stopped nationwide have established an email address for those of you who would like to touch base-and they’d love to hear from you.

Drop them a line at will appreciate it.

Next time: are these programs effective-and lots more. Stay tuned.

--crossposted wherever they'll have me...

Fake Consultant (Advice From A Fake Consultant)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

On Teaching Debt Collection To Kids, Or, Here's The Outrage Of The Week

There have been efforts in the past to teach “life skills” to students in the public schools, and of course among those skills is the lesson of financial responsibility.

I can imagine that these classes, especially for a student forced to take them first thing in the morning, can be like a daily session of discussing Hawley/Smoot in Ben Stein’s high school economics class. So, so dull that they make you nod your head in....zzzzzzz...

For some school districts, however, a more direct method of financial education has been employed-a method that will be our outrage of the week.

There is no question that the public schools are, financially speaking, stuck between a rock and a hard place; and just like a person living on a fixed income, every lost dollar hurts.
One form of “lost dollars” has historically been the money owed by parents for school lunches that are essentially provided “on credit”. Basically what happens is a kid might forget his lunch money that day, or a parent might have bounced a check for the prepayment of meals for the next month, and the school covers the money until they can collect the debt.

Now, debt collection is a highly regulated business. Federal law says you can’t just go around threatening violence to collect a debt, for example. State laws are even more restrictive: California says you can’t put a fake name on an envelope containing a collection notice or force a debtor to accept collect calls; New York says collectors are prohibited from: “...communicating with you in a manner which simulates a judicial process or which gives the appearance of being authorized or issued by a governmental entity...”

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that schools would look for ever-more-creative ways to collect debts; but even considering all that I found myself shocked by this LA Times article entitled: “On school menus: cheese sandwiches, parental debt”.

The article describes the Chula Vista (a suburb of San Diego, California) Elementary School District’s “alternate meals” plan, which works something like this: If a parent owes the district more than $5 in meal money, the district will send a letter home, put a sticker on the child’s hand, and eventually, hire collection agencies. If all that fails, the district will basically...repossess lunch.How is that possible, you ask?

Picture two second-graders in the cafeteria line. As they get to the yummy pizza, the first little girl gets her slice of pepperoni. But not the second girl. She gets a cheese sandwich. That’s right-this school district, and numerous others nationwide, have special school lunch “options” for those students who have parents that owe money-and in Calloway County, Kentucky, it only takes $3.00.

Life’s tough enough for a kid in school: the pressure to have the right clothes and shoes, the need to fit in, and above all-making sure you avoid being humiliated in front of everyone. Here’s a piece of the LA Times article: “...The cheese sandwich, they say, has become a badge of shame for the children, who get teased about it by their classmates. One student cried when her macaroni and cheese was replaced with a sandwich. A little girl hid in a restroom to avoid getting one. Many of the sandwiches end up untouched or tossed whole in the garbage. Sometimes kids pound them to pieces...

...A year ago, he said, a cafeteria worker took away Christopher's pizza and forced him in front of his friends to pick up a sandwich instead. A similar incident occurred when Christopher was in the third grade. "The kid was humiliated," said his father, who added that he did not realize he owed money, $7.50...

...One Chula Vista third-grader, whose mother requested that the girl not be identified, said students sometimes ostracize the cheese sandwich kids, switching tables and talking behind their backs. "Some kids say they're not the kind of kids you want to hang out with," she said.”

There are a bunch of other reasons why this is a bad idea, and an explanation of why the tactic is popular below; but first, a required disclosure.

Those of you who are regular readers will recall two stories that I recently did about The Yes Men, and you may already be suspicious that this is the third. If this were a missile silo, I’d be telling you: “This is not a drill”.I have no surprise twist coming.This is a real story.

Now back to the news...

When we left off, we had discussed the stigma that I contend attaches to a kid when they get the “special” sandwich (or the peanut butter and crackers, or whatever) and everybody else gets the pizza; but maybe I’m just overreacting in my assessment. To be sure I’m not; let’s examine how others might view the practice.

Washington State’s Department of Social and Health Services offers online information for foster parents, including a discussion of disipline and punishment that offers these comments: ...”Punishment is defined as imposing external controls by force on children to change their behavior. It includes...Imposing suffering, for example by withholding food...Personal or emotional attacks like name-calling, ridicule, and insults...Many forms of punishment are against the law.”... (emphasis in original)

...”It's not hard to understand why parents sometimes want to use punishment. There are many reasons, including...
The misbehavior often stops immediatelyChildren often show remorse during punishmentThe parent gets to blow off steamThe parent feels in controlThe parent hasn't let the children "get away with it"The parent was raised that way”
The Centers for Disease Control offers a score card to help elementary schools measure their “School Health Index”; and items 5 and 6 on the list of score card items are-you guessed it!-lunchroom related:

“N.1. Prohibit using food as reward or punishment N.2. Fundraising efforts supportive of healthy eating”
The State of Wisconsin has intervened to prevent the practice of withholding food as a form of discipline in school settings, as reported by the Winona Daily News:

“The state has ordered a military-style private school to stop punishing students by serving them smaller lunches and is withholding money for food programs until the problems are corrected...

...The state has halted its share of the money for lunch and breakfast for low-income students until the La Brew Troopers Military University School stops withholding food as punishment, Helen Pesche, child nutrition program consultant for the state, wrote in a letter to the school dated May 21...

... The letter said that inspections at the school found students were sometimes punished by being served lunch without either meat or a substitute and a vegetable and fruit...

... A DPI report said one day when inspectors visited the school, 24 students were served lunches that did not include a sloppy joe on a bun and canned fruit, like their peers ate. Instead, the report said the children were given a slice of white bread, half a cup of mashed potatoes and a half pint of milk...

...Withholding food is unacceptable for schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, a federally assisted program that subsidizes school food, the report said...”

The State of Illinois also frowns on this type of “food punishment”.Consider this policy goal from's “evaluation tool” for Illinois schools:

“School personnel are encouraged to use nonfood incentives or rewards with students...and do not withhold food from students as punishment.”

Is this practice intended as punishment?Here’s another quote from the LA Times, discussing what happened when peanut-butter-and-jelly was the “special sandwich”:

"It seemed to be one of the children's very favorite meals, so that wasn't productive," said Beth Taylor, nutrition director for the Johnston County School District in North Carolina, where such sandwiches were tried. Taylor said switching to vegetable and fruit trays changed everything. Among last week's menu items for students with lunch balances: crunchy cole slaw, fried squash and steamed cabbage. "The outstanding debt has been reduced to nothing," she said.”

Did everybody catch that admission by Ms. Taylor?It was serving healthy food that turned the problem around.
Who thinks these kids will grow up to have eating disorders?Who thinks opening a 24-Hour Fitness in Johnson County, North Carolina will pay off big one day?Who thinks with policies like this in place buying stock in “Stroke, Inc.” or “Heart Attack & Co.” would be a great investment, if it were available?

With all that in mind, why would a school district pursue such a practice?Because humiliation works.
The LA Times article reports that Chula Vista reduced its debt in this category by more than $230,000 from 2004 to 2006. Of 18,000 meals served by the District daily, up to 400 are of the “special sandwich” variety.
In its defense, Chula Vista points out that the “unlimited salad bar” is available to all students, but I suspect the salad bar does not reduce the impact of the “cheese sandwich equivalent” on the little kid to whom it is served.
Before closing, I want to offer one more learned opinion regarding the "food as punishment" idea. A learned Opinion that comes to us from the Unitred States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit (the case originated in the eastern District of Wisconsin).

The Court has been called upon to offer an opinion as to whether food substitution is an acceptable form of punishment for prisoners in Wisconsin’s Secure Program Facility at Boscobel (a Maximum Security Facility, previously a Supemax). Food substitution means a “nutri-loaf” will be the only food offered during the period of a prisoner’s punishment, and the court found that the punishment was a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”.

To put all this in perspective, we have on the one hand a highly effective policy borne out of the school districts’ need to collect money; and on the other hand the opinions of Washington State’s foster parent educators, the Centers for Disease Control, the courts of Wisconsin and the nutrition educators of Illinois who all feel this is a terrible idea.
If all that wasn’t enough, we have a United States Court of Appeals that won’t even allow this type of punishment in a Maximum Security prison.

As we all know, kids have a ton of barriers in their way when they are being educated, and there is no good reason to create another one when the punished child didn’t even commit the “crime”. Just because...

...The misbehavior often stops immediately Children often show remorse during punishment The district gets to blow off steam The district feels in control The district hasn't let the children "get away with it" The district was raised that way...

...doesn’t mean it’s OK to abuse kids who have little, if any, control over the “bad” behavior of their parents.
--crossposted wherever they'll have me...

by Fake Consultant (Advice From A Fake Consultant)

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Other America - Chapter 59

Good News For South Bend

Near the end of May the South Bend Tribune ran an article which contained some good news for the residents of South Bend. Mayor Steve Luecke announced a two prong plan to address a serious problem of abandoned houses in the city.

This issue is near and dear to me. In 1991 I bought an inexpensive home near Riley High School. The home needed a lot of work. I was poor but skilled in home renovation. Slowly I worked on my home. There were other people doing the same in the area A very odd experience in the early years is that a house nearby might be standing when I left for work, but had disappeared by the time I got home. The neighborhood was kind of scary early on too, but then after a severely protracted period of time the South Bend School Corporation got the OK to build a new Riley High School.

As a result, my home is much closer to Riley High School than it was originally. The other results were that several not so nice dwellings and the infamous “All Hours Liquor Store” (replete with its welcoming Plexiglas shield for its clerks) felt the teeth of the excavator bucket and are no more.

There was a brief spurt of revitalization after that. Owner occupants and at least two responsible developer/landlords worked on upgrading the housing stock. The effort plateaued after a while, but in general the neighborhood was much improved.

Then came the infamous property value reassessments. In the neighborhood I’m talking about properties are typically assessed at or above market value. In the more desirable neighborhoods, assessed value is more like 70 – 80 % of market value. I know this because I work in the local real estate industry. If you’re not an owner occupant, you get no property tax reductions or deductions, so in the case of my home I would need to collect almost $200 a month from a tenant to cover property taxes alone.

One might think that my little renovated three bedroom home in an OK neighborhood would be a great candidate for the Section 8 housing assistance program, but the allotment available to the sized family I’d want to rent to is about $550 a month. That doesn’t leave much to cover my principal, interest, insurance and maintenance expenses – let alone improvements and (god forbid) some small return on my investment of time and treasure.

Not surprisingly, many homes in the area were walked away from. These cheap homes got to be too expensive. There is a block nearby which features only vacant lots or vacant homes. On the same block as my house, there is a derelict home mostly destroyed by arson almost two years ago festering – an ugly wound on the neighborhood.

The South Bend Tribune publishes property crime (burglary and theft) reports each Sunday. Surprisingly, this neighborhood has a pretty low rate of both property and violent crime. But it’s ugly. If you could afford to live somewhere else in the city, you likely would. And that’s bad for South Bend.
Back to the Mayor’s plan. It targets nearly four hundred abandoned properties for demolition in the next three years. This is important. It attacks the “ugly” issue I referred to in otherwise decent neighborhoods. He identifies clear funding sources and I’d suggest anyone interested review the plan at the South Bend City homepage.

What’s referred to as the centerpiece of the strategy, I’m going to withhold judgment of. The Tribune mischaracterizes it. I quote, “The city will also bring back a $1 home program, which was previously a federal Housing and Urban Development program. The city will target 45 properties for this program over the next three years, selling houses to nonprofits, homebuyers or developers for $1.”

I remember the program referred to well, but the HUD program was aimed at homesteaders, using sweat equity to improve properties. The city of South Bend has a different idea in mind when you review their press release. The city plans to identify certain properties as “distinctive”, offer them to non profits with the requirement that they market the properties at $1. There are a number of requirements after that, but the one that jumps out at me is a minimum investment of $75,000 in renovations in each property. The number seems pretty arbitrary, particularly in view of the fact that this number creates a total which implies a 50/50 public private investment. And I’m assuming the city’s term of “distinctive” is shorthand for large and old.

The problem is that it is entirely possible that – judging from the neighborhoods these are likely to be in – the properties may not have a market value of $75,001 when they’re done. If so, they won’t be so attractive.

In any case, even if I’m right about that, I still like the program. Some tweaking may be needed, but this is an aggressive approach designed to attack a long standing problem in our city. The mayor and his staff deserve credit for that.

Don Wheeler
South Bend, IN

The Other America – Chapter 58

John Edwards often cites issues surrounding poor people and housing. As advertised in Chapter 57, this story is about what happened to a good tenant of mine. None of the people’s names appearing here are real (except mine), but the events unfortunately are.

So…Don S. and Don W. (me) spent months completing a serious rehab of one of the homes. A sign went out in the yard, flyers in the tube and the calls started coming in. I’m a believer in affirmative action, so any “tie” was going to go to someone I perceived as disadvantaged.

Happily, someone I perceived as disadvantaged also appeared to be the best candidate. “Michele” was a single African American mom with a son (“John”) who was our daughter’s age. She had a stable residence, but was losing it because her landlord was being foreclosed on. She had a long term part-time job as well. I got excellent references from both sources. I even met with her once at her home which very neat and clean. There was one complication for me however. After being on a waiting list for about five years, Michele had finally qualified for housing assistance from the program commonly referred to as Section 8.

Then came one of those moments where one has to decide whether one really believes what one believes…or not? In other words, if one claims to want to address poverty housing issues is one willing to jump through a few hoops to do it? Anyway, I looked into what was required to participate as a landlord. There were certain requirements, but not terribly daunting.

I’ll never forget the conversation with the staff person (over the phone) to arrange the property inspection. I was not too concerned about the inspection itself (I’m a licensed Home Inspector) since the program’s requirements were fewer than my own. But when I called to arrange the inspection I was informed that it would be scheduled for a day certain. OK, I responded, but roughly when? The voice on the phone patronizingly told me that they only schedule days, not times. I said that wouldn’t work, since I didn’t live there. I added that I understood that an exact time was too much to ask, but a portion of the day shouldn’t be. She then “patiently” explained to me that inspectors were “busy and had schedules”. That was too much. “SO DOES EVERYONE!”, I exploded. I got a call back later. They were able to do better.

Michele and John moved in and things went well. John’s Dad “James” lived in the area and often cared for John while Michele was at work. I met him a couple times briefly on visits to the house. It seemed clear that James and Michele were on something more like businesslike terms as opposed to any closeness. He did seem to take an active interest in the welfare of his son. There were some limits, though – as we shall see.

Sometime early the following summer I got an ominous looking letter from the City of South Bend entitled “NOTICE TO ABATE”. This letter informed me confidently that it had been established that criminal activity had been taking place on my property and that if I failed to “abate” the problem i.e. there was any recurrence, I could be sued by the city. The sign bore the signature of Sgt. “Brown”.

As you can imagine, I was at a pretty big loss as to what to do next. Since Michele hadn’t contacted me, I thought I’d better figure out what my position was in all this. So I called Sgt. Brown and arranged a meeting.

The meeting was pretty weird and not all that helpful, though it did clarify what the city’s position was…sort of. Sgt. Brown gave a rough summary of events and then proceeded to offer (repeatedly) to be the “bad guy” in order to get my tenant evicted. My thought was that we should establish that there was reason to ask my tenant to leave. The implied threat was that if I didn’t capitulate and start eviction action, I would be perceived as complicit, should a similar problem occur. I know many landlords cave at this point – they don’t see the profit in bucking the system.

Here’s what happened that day, as far as I can put together. Some DEA types were shadowing some suspected big time dealer. At some point, James met with this guy and at least some of the folks followed him. He came to the house and picked up John to take him to his (James’s) house. Remember, John is three years old. On the way, these folks pulled over James and John, pulled James out the car with guns drawn while his young son screamed in terror. I know these things happened.

They drove James back to Michele’s house and asked permission from him to search it. Accounts vary as to his response, but obviously he had no authority to OK it. Wisely, the police waited for a warrant and then searched. In the house they found drugs and a gun (stolen, I think) under Michele’s bed. Michele, remember had been at work this whole time.

It seems likely to me that James suspected he was followed and ditched the stuff when he picked up John. Not a great choice, granted. But I was having a heck of a time figuring out why this was being made Michele’s problem. Though they charged James with several things, Michele was never charged with any crime at all. You’d think that should mean her life wouldn’t be turned upside down, wouldn’t you? Sorry to rain on the parade.

This was roughly the point at which I thought I needed to have a lengthy conversation with Michele to find out how things looked from her perspective. She was embarrassed and very upset. She filled in some gaps for me (most of which I’ve covered earlier). Though I had some doubts, my experience with her had been good and I just couldn’t get past the fact that she hadn’t been charged with anything. It seemed to me the onus was on the police to establish a good reason to evict her and I got clearer about what my position was on all this.

The term that kept recurring in the aforementioned letter to me was “remediation”. That’s as specific as it got. It seemed clear that to let their letter stand might put me in a disadvantageous position. Since they asked for a remedy it seemed wise to communicate that I had one in mind.

I drafted a letter in response and sent it certified delivery. The first part discussed my understanding of the facts in the matter (I had a few things wrong, it turned out) and then moved on to the action I planned to take: “Although your letter does not say so explicitly, in our interview you strongly hinted that I should evict my tenant on the basis of this incident. It is hard to see any justification for that action. The suspect (James) did not live at (address), but had reason to visit since his son did reside there. My tenant has no complaint pending that I’m aware of. In fact, if I were to follow your suggestion I may be violating (Michele’s) civil rights. It is unlawful to terminate a lease without cause.

This is the remedy I have chosen. The suspect (James) is barred from visiting the property. (Michele’s) attorney has drawn up a document attesting to her agreement. Your letter implies that remedial action obviates the potential litigation and fines of a subsequent drug offense on the property. I will assume this satisfies that requirement unless I hear otherwise.” I also sent a copy of the agreement bearing James’ signature.

That ought to do it, shouldn’t it? ‘Fraid not.

The South Bend Housing Authority had been appraised of these goings on and had sent Michele and me a notice to discontinue her (Section 8) benefits. I talked with her about this and we agreed she should appeal. The meeting was scheduled and we met with two people charged with making determinations on these matters. The hearing seemed to go well and was very civil. I made it clear I objected strongly to the decision and told them that Michele had been a model tenant. The female didn’t ask any questions. At one point the male said “I think I have enough information” in a pretty agreeable way, and the meeting was over.

To my surprise, about a week later I received a letter saying that they had rejected our appeal. Luckily, Michele secured a much better job, but she was not going to be able to afford our house without help. She was able to move to more modest quarters, but I wonder what they thought she and John were supposed to do if she hadn’t gotten that better job. When I spoke with her sometime later she mentioned that John was having a lot of trouble dealing with what happened to his father in his view. This was requiring quite a lot of counseling, apparently. Other than that they were doing OK.

Somewhat earlier I’d consulted an attorney friend who has a reputation for standing up for disadvantaged people. I bounced my ideas off him and he had helped me understand the broad issues. It was and is his contention that what happened to Michele was straight up discrimination and it’s his view that a 1973 (I hope I have the year right) case establishes this clearly. Remember, she was never charged with anything, yet lost the benefit of a program she waited five years to qualify for.

I haven’t heard from Michele in quite a while. I hope she and John are well. Michele is a smart, tough, determined and resilient person, but understandably she wasn’t interested in pursuing things any further – though she’d have had a lot of help. I suspect things will work out OK for them and I’m very glad of that. What I keep thinking about is what would have happened to someone less “put together”, who didn’t get the better job just in time and didn’t have anyone who was willing to put some time in to stand up for that person. Why?

It seems to me that our programs for disadvantaged people should be aimed at the person I just described. Instead it seems at times the idea is to discourage as many people as possible from participating – which certainly makes the program easier to administer. But like John Edwards, I think we’re better than this and like John Edwards I think the way we take care of the “least of us” says a lot about us. The conversation needs to change.

Don Wheeler
South Bend, IN

The Other America – Chapter 57

As an independent home inspector I am typically hired by would-be home purchasers to assess the buildings they have contracted to purchase. Although the homes are sometimes in rough shape (generally these are vacant), normally they are not. Occasionally though, they are worse than rough and people are living in them. I was in such a place last Friday.

The home (a duplex) was located in a subdivision of sorts located in a small town about a half hour from South Bend. On the map you might think you were looking at a mobile home park because of the narrow winding streets. But these are all stick built fixed homes which I would guess were built in the 1950s. Like mobile homes however, many if not most are built on concrete piers and skirted – instead of being on continuous foundations. This is a very unusual type of construction for our area.

My guess is that this development probably was built by some large employer, probably offering production work and likely long gone (now) from the area. These were likely “built on the cheap” and thought of as disposable. Meanwhile most of the homes remain.

As you’d expect, generally the people living here are disadvantaged and some in multiple ways. If you’ve ever lived among people in these circumstances the social and conversational patterns would be familiar. As I worked on the outside I overheard complaints about the landlord(s), hassles with government aid agencies, the gauntlet (unending) presented to make receiving disability benefits from the Social Security program so difficult, etc. The social patterns however, are much like that of any compact neighborhood.

Once I’d inspected the exterior of the building, I started in on the west unit. I’d noticed the residents were not particularly clean and the reason soon became apparent. There was no gas service. That meant no heat, no hot water and no range. I was told that the gas company had cut them off although they’d made the payment at the last minute. A miscommunication between the office and field personnel – while unfortunate – is not always avoidable, but they’d been waiting several days already to have their service reinstated.

I started with the attic. Though the day was comfortable (around 70 degrees) the attic was stifling. It was obvious that the roofing was failing due to poor ventilation. Another symptom was the mold throughout. Aggravating the problem was that when the heating system was active the heat runs were not all connected to registers. This had the effect of dumping much of the heated air right where you don’t want it – in the attic. Add to that, there was only about two inches of insulation.

Back down in the “living area” what was really striking was the mold throughout. It’s true that the place was untidy but that had little to do with what I had seen.

The east unit seemed somewhat less untidy and had all utilities active, but when I opened the door to the utility area two things stood out. The first was that the furnace covers were off and there seemed no way to reattach them. The residents of this unit told me the furnace had failed sometime during the winter, a technician had come out and nothing had happened since. Obviously, they’d had no heat any time since then. The second thing that stood out was the herd of the boldest, most lethargic cockroaches living in the room that I’ve ever seen.

You might think that it was beside the point, but I endeavored to have a look under the structure. Opening the access I was greeted by a massive flock of juvenile mosquitoes.
No ventilation here either. I could go on and on about the problems with this home – and for my client, I did.

At some point, a young woman drove up and parked outside. She was later identified to me as “the landlord”. She seemed pleasant enough, and the tenants spoke with her amicably and at great length.

As you can probably tell I found this experience pretty upsetting. I’ve said to people since then that I don’t think I would sleep making money off people whom I put in this kind of abode. And how do you look them in the eye?

A couple or so years back my wife and I inherited a small sum from my beloved grandmother. We decided to invest in real estate and at the same time do a small gesture towards eliminating poverty housing – a cause Habitat For Humanity is rightly famous for. We bought two modest homes, one needed only minor work and the other was a pretty serious rehab. Don and I (yes that’s his name too) worked for a few months on the second home. A home needs to work properly before one worries about the aesthetics. We addressed both and eventually we offered “our baby” proudly to prospective renters. We got tons of applications and wound up with a great tenant. (In The Other America --Chapter 58, I’ll tell you what happened to her.)

There is a way to do this the right way…a way where everyone wins. Someone with a bit of money can take the opportunity to make a return from renters while providing them a place they can proudly call home. This is how it should work. I’ve now been at both ends of the equation. I’ve certainly lived in poverty housing in the past – though nothing a bad as I’ve described here -- and I’ve rented nice places. Now that I’ve experienced some success it seems reasonable to require of myself at a minimum to do some good while I’m doing well.

I believe that this is the strongest message that John Edwards gives to us and the example in his conduct that he gives to us. It’s why I won’t let people alone about him and why I’ll be in Iowa next January.

Don Wheeler
South Bend, IN