Hey, America, How About We Feed All The Kids In School? We Should Do That!

Education
Des Moines schools distributing lunches last April. Photo: Phil Roeder, Creative Commons license 2.0

Among the many awful secondary effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the necessary closures of schools has played havoc with the federal free school meal program, which for many poor families is an absolutely necessary part of making sure the kids have at least a good lunch five days a week, and often a breakfast, too. Schools and state governments scrambled to keep kitchens open to prep lunches to be picked up (or even delivered in some places), and the US Department of Agriculture used funds from the emergency spending bills to make sure the food keeps getting to kids. And yes, it's really easy to get us a little weepy by showing us photos of happy masked lunch ladies handing bags of food to cars at the elementary school curbside.

Out of all the chaos, there's actually now a fair chance that we might finally do some serious reform of school nutrition programs. Last week, the School Nutrition Association (SNA) called on Congress to make school lunch programs free for all kids. No more need for families to apply every year for free or reduced-price lunches, no more class warfare in the cafeteria, no more worries about running short of lunch money and getting a "shame lunch" consisting of a PBJ or a single slice of American cheese on white bread, plus a stamp on a little arm reading "I NEED LUNCH MONEY." And for fuckssake no more big displays of filling a kid's lunch tray and dumping it into the garbage to teach her not to have poor parents.

Hell, we do this, and we won't even have to fire any lunch ladies who slip a real lunch instead of a cheese sandwich to kids whose parents have lunch debt. Sure, we might lose the semi-heartwarming stories of nifty eight-year-olds raising money to pay their classmates' lunch debts, but we bet those good-hearted kids can find other avenues for their impressive decency.

Wouldn't it be great if our feel-good stories were no longer tinged with "that shouldn't be needed in the first place"?


As food justice website Civil Eats explains, the movement for universal free lunch has been growing for years, fueled in part by stories exactly like those, and by nutrition activists all over the place. The pandemic, and the emergency measures it made necessary, may have brought us to a place where what had seemed like a pie in the sky idea (or cherry cobbler on industrial-sized baking sheets) may actually be a realistic opportunity:

The pandemic has exposed and even widened the fault lines in the school lunch program, as districts have scrambled to find creative ways to equitably feed ever more hungry children while keeping their budgets in the black. The USDA waivers, which reimburse school districts for every meal through the 2020–2021 school year, have provided a lifeline to school districts and families, and primed the pump for a longer-term solution. Advocates also see opportunity with the change in administration in Washington.

The SNA named universal school lunch as its top priority for 2021, arguing that if the federal government provided meals to every kid who wants one, we'd not only have less child hunger, we'd also have better schools, because nutrition is so key to learning. Schools and poor families wouldn't have to fret about lunch budgets, and we could eliminate the "costly, time-consuming meal application and verification process." Instead of spending money on paperwork, we could spend it on feeding kids.

Other groups have endorsed the idea, too, like those socialists at the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Heart Association, and the United Fresh Produce Association, who were among 64 groups that signed on to a December letter calling on the Biden administration to work with Congress and make universal school meals a reality.

Even before the pandemic, some school districts and local governments were moving in the right direction. In 2013, the Boston school district instituted free meals for all kids. And in 2010, that school nutrition nut Michelle Obama supported the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which funded neat ideas like the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Civil Eats 'splains that program

allows schools to offer free meals to all students without collection of the meal applications normally required for free and reduced-priced meals. To qualify, at least 40 percent of students had to be eligible for free meals, based on their participation in other means-tested programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Nearly 31,000 schools across the country participated in CEP during the 2019-2020 academic year, serving 15 million children, or 28 percent of the 52 million children enrolled in schools participating in the national school breakfast and lunch programs, according to a USDA spokesperson.

Susan Morales, who runs nutrition services for the Placentia-Yorba Linda district in Orange County, California, told Civil Eats that the nine schools in her district using the CEP saw a decrease in absenteeism, at least before the pandemic. Also too,

Studies have also shown improved nutritional outcomes, including reduced obesity in low-income children in CEP schools, as well as improved academic performance.

And in many districts, since CEP feeds all the kids, it helps out families that make a little too much income to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, but are right on the edge of poverty anyway. Everybody wins when everybody eats, and you can put that on a bumper sticker or T-shirt if you wanna.

During the pandemic, the USDA waived requirements for families to apply for school lunch aid, and used emergency funding from the stimmy bills to support school meal programs. In addition to calling for universal school meals, the SNA's letter to Congress asked that those waivers be funded through the 2021-2022 school year, because even if we get schools open again, the need is going to be huge for quite a while.

Now, it's not clear how much a universal meal program would cost, because nobody knows how many families would participate in it. But the pre-pandemic school meal program cost $18.7 billion to support free and reduced-price meals for nearly 29 million kids in 2019. In the context of a pandemic and recession where we're spending trillions on relief, expanding school meals to every kid doesn't look like an impossible task, and it looks like a cause that plenty of Democrats would fight for. We might just be ready, as a nation, to feed all the kids, and to give a big middle finger to rightwing jerks who fret that not starving will make kids indolent.

Let's do this.

[Civil Eats / Photo: Phil Roeder,Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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