School Lunch at Hillis Elementary in Des Moines, Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
Advertisements

The Register’s editorial

Ensuring that children don’t go hungry is morally good, full stop. But the benefits of putting reasonably nutritious food in front of children do not stop there.

Americans will get what they pay for with school lunches.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, federal policy has allowed for everybody to eat free lunches at U.S. schools. Unless something changes, the conditions that existed before the pandemic will mostly return for the 2022-23 school year. The features of that school lunch system include:

  • Onerous paperwork for many low-income families to fill out to receive free and reduced-price meals. Advocates point out that this barrier could be worse than ever in the coming year because families have gotten out of the habit of filing the forms.
  • A constant need for school nutrition workers to track eligibility and hunt down payments instead of concentrating on procuring (no small matter during supply disruptions), preparing and serving meals.
  • A breeding ground for bullying as children inevitably figure out which classmates don’t pay for meals, not to mention which families forget or fail to keep their accounts current.
  • The prospect of children going hungry because of unpaid bills, even if they should have been eligible for fully subsidized food.

None of that needs to happen. This COVID accommodation should be made permanent. The need was apparent before the pandemic and shows no sign of abating.

In fact, the scheduled expiration of the extended program next month is particularly poorly timed. COVID-19 remains a significant threat and disruption. Food prices were up almost 9% year over year in March.

Legislation before Congress could at least extend the expanded lunch program for another year, which should be an easy call for lawmakers.

Advertisements

But independently of that debate, policymakers at the federal and state levels should be crunching numbers to figure out how to keep providing one of the most basic human needs in a fashion that’s far more efficient than the old way.

The price tag is significant, yes. The national school lunch program cost over $14 billion in the year that ended in September 2019, before eligibility was expanded.

Ensuring that children don’t go hungry is morally good, full stop. But the benefits of putting reasonably nutritious food in front of children do not stop there.

Some large cities had already made free lunch available to all students. A Syracuse University study of what happened after New York City switched in 2017 tied the policy change to increased academic performance of students. Several states, including Minnesota, either have already decided to continue providing lunches to everybody or are considering such efforts.

Advertisements

Advertisements

In Iowa, Des Moines Public Schools has announced that all its students will continue to receive free meals next fall, regardless of what happens at the national level. This was possible because of the high proportion of Des Moines families that make less or only a little more than poverty-level income, a situation that isn’t present in much of the rest of the state. But that does not at all mean this is a minor issue in other communities.

More than half of students would have been eligible for free or reduced-price lunches during the current school year in 28% of the nearly 1,300 public school buildings in the state, according to state Department of Education data. In over 60 buildings, the proportion eligible was at least 80%. (Thirty-two of those buildings are part of the Des Moines district.)

Statewide, just over 40% of students are eligible. Thanks to a 2010 overhaul of the school lunch program, free meals already can go to everybody at buildings with particularly high proportions of eligible students. The same “windfall” that higher-income families at those schools receive — a few hundred dollars per child — can be offered to families at other schools, too. It’s a very reasonable trade-off for wiping out once and for all the scourge of lunch shaming, and for doing away with means-testing applications that undocumented immigrants might not fill out for fear of attracting attention.

School districts should not divert, or need to divert, instructional dollars toward lunch costs. It makes sense for the federal government to provide a nationwide solution. But if Congress doesn’t find a way forward, Iowa’s legislators ought to consider their $1 billion surpluses and invest in the children whose well-being and academic achievement they claim to care so much about.

— Lucas Grundmeier on behalf of the Register editorial board

Facebook Comments

Advertisements