The United States federal government in 2020 embarked on a grand and beautiful experiment: expanding the use of tax dollars to help stave off poverty. That experiment has now largely ended in a shocking return to business-as-usual.
One critical component of the experiment was to ensure that public school students had free lunches via the Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch program, regardless of family income.
During the 2020-2021 school year, 98 percent of all school lunches were free to students, compared to only 68 percent of lunches in the previous year. Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), pointed out that such data “demonstrates what is possible when meals are provided to all students at no charge and children are back in school.” It was as if, all of a sudden, alongside taxpayer-funded teachers, books, and facilities, public schools were allowed to treat the idea of feeding students to be as essential as educating them.
The school lunch funding program was one of several common sense assistance programs that Congress passed in 2020, as the schools and businesses shut down to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The programs, which also included a monthly child tax credit, and a pause in student loan repayments and on work requirements for food stamps, proved that government assistance works. They not only kept people from falling into deep poverty but actually led to a record reduction in poverty levels.
Now, as most of those programs expire, it is likely that poverty levels will once more rise. And, with an end to federally funded free school lunches, kids living in the world’s richest nation will go hungry again. As one headline put it, “Lunch Shaming May Be Back on the Menu.”
When the temporary free lunch program that fed 50 million students ended in June 2022, participation in school meal programs dropped by 23 percent and income-based qualifications for free meals resumed. Today the national public school meal debt has ballooned to $262 million per year and an estimated 30.4 million students cannot afford to pay for their meals at school.
A student must have money on their account to purchase an ice cream. If a student has a negative balance they will not be able to purchase an ice cream even if they bring their $1 for ice cream. Students are only allowed to purchase [one] ice cream and are not permitted to buy an ice cream for a friend.
One person commenting on the school’s Facebook announcement decried the post, saying, “Just give the kids ice cream!!! The part that kids can’t buy ice cream for their friends is disgusting.”
At a school district in Philadelphia where hundreds of public school families have racked up tens of thousands of dollars of school lunch debt, schools are now instructed to restrict meals. Sixth through 12th graders in debt will no longer be fed at school. Among them is a single mother of three who cannot pay off her kids’ $400 lunch debt.
In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District has nearly $500,000 in unpaid school lunch debts.
Even in school districts where meals are free for low-income families, there is a deep stigma when kids are singled out. There are horror stories of “lunch shaming,” such as kids forgoing meals in order to not be outed as too poor to pay out-of-pocket. Additionally, according to one analysis of school lunch debts, many kids “are part of families who earn too much to be considered for free or reduced lunch, but also earn too little to afford regular school meals.”
Our current patchwork state of affairs begs a simple question: why do we place limits on who can get free food at school when we place no such limits on who can get an education?
The lines we draw are arbitrary. We ensure taxpayer-funded public classrooms and teacher salaries as well as roads, parks, libraries, firefighters, paramedics, healthcare for those over 65, and COVID-19 vaccines and tests. None of these have income-based or work-based requirements. They are free at the point of use for everyone.
But we draw the line at school lunches for kids.
Instead of questioning this, we are encouraged to engage in private philanthropy to stop kids from going hungry via feel-good stories in the media of heroic individuals stepping up to do the government’s job.
For example, a Black-woman-owned restaurant in Ohio called Mz. Jade’s Soulfood paid off hundreds of dollars of school lunch debt for 3rd and 4th graders at the aforementioned Donovan Elementary School in Lebanon so all kids could enjoy Ice Cream Fridays. Naiyozcsia Thomason said she was moved to do it because she was once a single mother who had debts she couldn’t afford to pay.
Good Morning America highlighted a Virginia mother named Adelle Settle for starting a nonprofit to raise funds for school lunch debts in her state, mentioning only near the end of the story that Settle is backing state legislation to ensure schools feed all kids.
Settle rightly said she looks forward to a time when her organization is, “no longer needed and we can close our doors and not raise any more money for a school meal debt, because there’s no more need.”
But if Republicans have their way, they would cut federal funding for school lunches altogether. Declaring it a priority for 2024, the conservative party has vowed to end the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the National School Lunch Program because “CEP allows certain schools to provide free school lunches regardless of the individual eligibility of each student.” In the GOP’s dystopian worldview kids do not have an unconditional right to food.
But those children living in a growing number of Democrat-run states that learned from the federal government’s pandemic experiment are far luckier. California’s Department of Education this year boasted about being “the first state to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program for school children,” one that provides for, “not just needy children, but all children each school day.” Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Vermont have implemented similar programs that are in place permanently.
“‘School lunch debt’ is a term so absurd that it shouldn’t even exist,” declared Senator John Fetterman, D-PA, as he introduced the School Lunch Debt Cancelation Act. Fetterman’s act would direct the Department of Agriculture to pay off all school meal debts.
It isn’t enough to pay off the debt once. If public schools provide free education, it ought to include meals with no strings attached and without regard to where one lives. FRAC has backed numerous pieces of federal legislation which, if passed, would ensure that in the world’s wealthiest country, school kids don’t go hungry. Chief among them is Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s Universal School Meals Program Act of 2023. It is modeled on California’s approach: a permanent program offering free meals for all kids with no income restriction.
I asked my 16-year-old son who attends a public school in California and eats school lunches with his friends how he would respond if kids at his school were required to pay for meals.
“That would be pretty dumb,” he said. He’s right, it’s that simple.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.