EDITORIAL: Free for all: Universal school meal plans deserve strong consideration

Metro Creative

Dedicated consumers of news might have noticed a growing trend: students being “meal shamed” when they don’t have the money to pay for their school lunches. Such students, and those whose families are behind in their payments for school lunches, are barred from eating the schools’ regular meals. Rather than let them go hungry, schools give them something else, usually a bologna, peanut butter-and-jelly or cheese sandwich.

It’s a real trend; NBC News, which recently reported on a student whose lunch was taken out of his hands on his birthday because his family owed $9.75 in lunch money, noted that 75% of school districts nationwide reported delinquency in school payments, a 70% increase since 2012.

To be honest the issue doesn’t affect most Rio Grande Valley families; most Valley students get school meals at no cost — sometimes breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It’s because they are poor. The National School Lunch Program, operated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under directives in the federal Farm Bill, subsidizes meals for students who meet poverty-level criteria. When a certain

percentage of a school’s or district’s students qualify for the subsidies the institutions are given “community eligibility,” and all of the school’s or district’s students can receive free meals. All but one Valley district — Point Isabel — has community eligibility.

That’s a good thing, in more ways than one. Advocates note that many children get their only meals of the day at school. But because those meals must meet nutrition guidelines, they help ensure that the students eat well, even though schools can’t force them to eat everything they’re offered.

A new Georgia State University study found that students in the NSLP can be healthier than those who aren’t. As a whole more of them are in healthy weight ranges for their ages and height, and they have a lower body mass index, which notes how much of a person’s weight is fat.

It should be noted that the differences, although measurable, are not large.

But might full participation in the meal program reduce health care costs and offset at least part of the program’s cost? It’s a question worth asking.

According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, about three-fourths of all school lunches are subsidized. If so many students qualify for the meal program, and the poorest districts provide free meals to all students, can’t the wealthier districts do the same?

President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack supported that very idea. They noted the health benefits, saying the meals improved school nutrition, and that it would eliminate the administrative costs and burdens of tracking what students qualified for free lunch and whether those who didn’t were paid up in their meal accounts.

Those officials are gone, but growing numbers of education and humanitarian advocates support the idea of universal free meals. If participation already is high and the meals help improve students’ health, it’s worth considering.

The change surely would save many students a lot of grief, and probably make a lot of Point Isabel families happy.

Valley Morning Star