School lunches should be free

This week a school district in Rhode Island caught national attention by announcing that students who have outstanding school lunch balances would be denied a hot meal and any choice for one. Instead, any student who has more than $25 in student lunch debt at Warwick Public schools will be given a sunflower butter and jelly sandwich. The school district has not yet verified if this sandwich will be the only item a student is served or if it will be the entrée to a meal of other fruits, vegetables and milk.

This plan, which goes into effect later this May, highlights the issues of “food shaming” in public schools in the U.S. Students whose parents cannot afford the balances of school lunches are often isolated by school districts and have their right to the same meals as their peers revoked. Sometimes students will have to eat less nutritious meals, and in the worst of cases, will go without eating a lunch at all.

Some school districts offer free or reduced-price lunches to students whose family income and size would restrict them from affording school lunches. The School Nutrition Association reports that families of four that make less than $32,630 a year are eligible for free school lunches. About 20 million students receive free meals in 100,000 school districts in the U.S.

While this type of support is certainly helping some families out, others are still suffering in thousands of school districts just like Warwick Public Schools. Parents in low-income households are sometimes working two to three jobs to keep their families fed, clothed and sheltered. Some of these families struggle because they are a single-parent household. Other homes can be multi-generational, which can make the number of plates at the table for each meal double the average household size.

These families should be able to rely on their public school districts to make sure that all their children can get a hot and healthy meal at least once a day. School districts like Warwick are defending themselves by saying their top priority is student equity, but the equity they are seeking only protects the families that can afford school lunches. If they were truly seeking equity, school lunches should be free and accessible to every student in the nation.

This is certainly not the school district’s fault, however. The underlying issue behind this is that these public school districts are so underfunded that they are forced to deny their students food in order to make ends meet. If schools cannot afford to feed every child in their district, they certainly do not have the funding for books, updated technology or common school supplies. In most cases, it often falls on the teachers’ and parents’ shoulders to get these things for their students.

The federal government has rejected funding for education for far too long. We are no longer in a time where primary education is a privilege in the U.S.; education is a right that is reserved for every child in America. CNN’s report on this issue was accompanied with examples of countries from all over the globe that provide and prioritize meals for all their students. In places like Japan, Kenya, Pakistan, France and many others, it is ensured that all their students eat at least once during the school day.

Not only do school lunches provide the proper nutrition for the stressful school environments students endure, but they also are central to the social and cultural atmosphere of the school. School lunch is one of the few places you may find students practicing faith, celebrating their cultures, sharing with each other and developing critical skills in socialization. The fear of “food shaming” is larger than a student getting their feelings hurt. Often students can face ridicule or even pity from their peers, which is isolating and discouraging. Other students may be questioned endlessly about their meal quality or size and have to bear the stress of their parents’ financial situations from an early age. No 10-year-old should have to explain to their friends why they frequently do not have a meal at lunchtime and then sit their with their stomachs growling while their classmates enjoy their meals.

Some school districts are rising to the occasion to feed their low-income students beyond their one meal at school. The United States Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) reports that nearly $5 million worth of school cafeteria food is wasted every day. Some school districts can register to be part of a food recovery program. These programs will often have a Food Share Table, where students can place recoverable foods that they do not eat so other students can grab them and eat them. Many school districts will also package up leftover food and send them home with students that qualify for free meals, so they can have a pre-prepared dinner that night as well. In 2018, the U.S.D.A. reported that around 500 school districts have adopted these food recovery practices, but that is still less than one percent of school districts in the U.S.

Low-income families need the government to support funding for free school lunches for all students, regardless of their incomes. Being able to rely on a meal five days a week for nine months out of the year should be standard, since it will give parents more room to manage their situations at home. No child should suffer hunger or humiliation when they go to lunch at school. Students need free lunches now.