Another viewpoint: K-12 students shouldn’t be denied meals

(Kendallville) News-Sun

The COVID-19 pandemic led to major disruptions for K-12 education, but it did bring about one positive — free school lunches for all students, regardless of their income.

Through a pandemic assistance program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the free and reduced-price lunch program nationally, gave schools the flexibility to offer free lunches to any and all students regardless of their household income.

Normally, and as is the case for the 2022-23 school year, only students below certain household income thresholds qualify for low-cost or free breakfast and/or lunch at school.

Prior to the pandemic, there was national attention being drawn to what was deemed “lunch shaming.” If a child has no lunch money or has an account that is overdrawn past a point set by the school, that student would be denied their normal lunch and instead given a substitute, often a cold lunch meat sandwich or peanut butter and jelly.

Critics raised issue with the practice of singling out students who were either poor or had parents who had neglected their accounts in front of their peers.

With the sunset of free lunches for all, an East Noble parent recently approached the school board to express her dismay that she’s heard stories of this practice returning at the high school and asked the school board to seek alternatives.

We agree wholeheartedly — no student should be denied a lunch at school.

Yes, we recognize that letting students run into debt is a drain on a district’s finances, but at $2.55 per lunch, even if a student never paid for a single lunch for the full 180-day school year, a school would be in the hole just $459.

We already know that low-income students are more likely to suffer from food insecurity and schools often play an important role in ensuring students get at least one or two square, healthy meals per day. To take away that meal for an inferior substitute due to an inability to pay is counterproductive to that supportive mission.

While schools would rather not play the role of collection agency, they have other recourse to collect those funds during or after the school year. A student in a lunch line has no such recourse when being asked to give up their lunch tray in front of their classmates.

We encourage all local school districts to immediately suspend any such meal substitutions due to overdrawn accounts.

Likewise, we strongly encourage state lawmakers to consider addressing this issue during the upcoming session in January, during which they will craft a new two-year budget plan.

Indiana is flush with cash now, so much so that the state government has been simply returning it to taxpayers as refunds.

Indiana has approximately 1.1 million K-12 students. Even if the state were to fund a school lunch for every student for every day of school — it wouldn’t need to as some kids bring a lunch some days or every day and others are being reimbursed through the federal program — lunch would cost the state $510 million maximum.

That may sound like a lot, but the state’s current education budget is $9.54 billion, meaning such a program would be only around a 5% increase. Again, the actual cost would likely be far less, since not every student would eat a school-provided lunch every day.

The state can afford it. Families are pinched by inflation. Students need nutritious meals to be able to grow, develop and learn. No child should go hungry.

For all of these reasons, lawmakers should not hesitate to aid our schools and aid students and make school lunches free for all.