Our School Lunch Program Needs A Total Re-haul And It Has Been Long Overdue
You may have seen many news articles about “8-year old boy pays off classmates’ school lunch debt,” or “Chobani pays off school lunch debt in Idaho.” These stories are all about the continuous school lunch debt issue that is sweeping the nation. They raise questions as to why a third grader has to burden with financial debt, why is there debt to begin with, and why is there so much if it? What these stories also signify is the problem at large; our school lunch program needs a total re-haul. I would like to first address the fact that I am not an economist. I am also not a legislator. However, I am an educator, an observer, and someone who wants to know why our federal lunch program sucks.
School districts in Rhode Island, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, and Colorado, have seen surges in unpaid debts according to local news outlets. Just last year, The Washington Post reported the $500,000 debt D.C. school districts have accumulated in unpaid lunches. Unfortunately, school districts nationwide are facing these surges and many are left with using general school funds to cover the debts, leaving other educational resources to falter. Many poor families turn to government programs to help fund their children’s lunches through the free and reduced lunch program. This program, however, is part of the issue due to its limited resources and restrictions.
According to newfoodeconomy.org, this free and reduced lunch program is offered to families below the federal-poverty threshold ($32,630 to receive free lunch; $46,435 but above $32,630 to receive reduced lunch). The schools are reimbursed by the National School Lunch Program, which is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food and Nutrition Service, through subsidies. Annually, about $13.6 billion is spent on reimbursements, according to the USDA. Those funds are used to run the cafeteria, but they do not allow funds to be used to pay off lunch debts. Also, reimbursement rates fluctuate according to communities and their area poverty levels. These limitations and restrictions cause schools to rely on the parents to pay for the debts. They have even constructed shaming methods to do it. Many students who have lunch debts are stamped. Also students are barred from graduation or school events if lunch debts are unpaid.
I am not kidding.
Students from less fortunate families are literally being stigmatized for not being able to afford hot meals in schools. Children aren’t idiots, they are aware of this stigmatization and it increases their marginalization from wealthier students. Poorer children already have to deal with bullies, grades, possible unstable home lives, insufficient clothing choices, and now eating. Many students’ only meal is the school lunch, and now they are being shamed.
It is a disgrace.
I want to know why all school lunches cannot be reimbursed through subsidies? I am pretty sure the first response from any conservative legislator would be “it is simply too much money.” I also want to know why are schools not allowed to use leftover funds from the National School Lunch Program to cover debts? According to The New Food Economy, they are allowed to use leftover funds for contracting for-profit collection agencies to collect the debt.
Our lunch program has many flaws and I hope our next presidential candidates can see and address this issue at hand. It is evident that our current administration doesn’t give a rat’s ass for food insecure families, since it is the same administration who wanted to dismantle the SNAP program and introduce “meal kits” instead. This is also the same administration who wanted to charge grocery stores for having EBT machines. We need more answers. We need clarity. I am sick of our children going hungry on the basis of capitalism and the school lunch program is no exception.