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School Lunch Debt Should Not Exist, Much Less Lead to Foster Care

All students should have the benefit of free school lunch. Not only would it help children thrive, but it would also help their communities too.

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Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley West School District recently sent letters to parents who had outstanding school lunch debt, notifying them that failure to pay could potentially land their child in foster care. The district’s Director of Federal Programs made the threat after being unable to collect the lunch debt from some 1,000 students who owed a combined $22,000 dollars in school lunch payments. And while the resulting backlash to the foster-care threat has been swift and loud enough to cause the district to reverse course, the situation sheds light on America’s inadequate school lunch policies. But, luckily, there is a fix to the trend of lunch-debt shaming, stressed parents and hungry, food-insecure kids: Make public school lunch free for every kid. 

It should be noted that there are hundreds of millions of kids who already qualify for free or subsidized school lunches as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The program was enacted in 1946 by President Truman as a measure of national security. According to the original language of the act, the reason the program was considered essential to the security of America was that it would “safeguard the health and well-being of the nation’s children and to encourage domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.”

Clearly, that was a sentiment of its time. You’d be hard-pressed to find any contemporary politicians in the United States willing to suggest that school lunch was a matter of national security. But the thing is, the idea is no less true today than it was in post-war America. Access to nutritional food during the school day is correlated to better outcomes for kids, who are better able to learn and progress in their studies. Better educated Americans are those who are better prepared to enter the workforce and contribute to the country’s economic health. 

The National School Lunch Program is also great for farmers. When the government purchases food from farms, it prioritizes smaller farms close to the school districts they will ultimately feed. The government buys food at a high volume for reasonable rates and this money stays in the local economy. 

Likewise, parents of kids eligible for the National School Lunch Program can save a substantial amount of money. These qualifying children come from households with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level or receiving SNAP or TANF food assistance benefits. These families can save hundreds of dollars a month on food costs and use the funds for important necessities like rent and utilities. And If this works for kids on the National School Lunch Program, then how much more effective could it be if the program were expanded to cover free lunch for all kids in public schools? 

The argument, of course, is that free school lunch would be impossible to implement without breaking state and federal budgets. That’s simply not the case. As the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation points out, farms are already heavily subsidized, and most of those subsidies go to household farm outfits that have net worths in the millions and multimillions of dollars. Recently, in order to relieve the burden of their tariff actions of American farmers, the Trump administration offered farmers bailouts to keep them afloat as countries retaliate by not importing American agricultural goods. There’s a lot of money tied up in these subsidies, and they could be much better spent to subsidize farmers who provide healthy food to kids in their local school districts.  

In fact, some cities are already offering free school lunch to all students through what’s known as the Community Eligibility Provision. These cities — Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, and New York — include some massive school districts. But consider the example of Boston. The city’s school district already had some 78 percent of students enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. The remaining students were charged just under a million dollars for school lunches per year. However, due to hardship allowances, the school district only collected an average of $500,000. That still seems like a lot of revenue to lose by feeding every kid in the city. But the school district estimated that by joining the Community Eligibility Provision, federal reimbursements would actually increase the school meal revenue by $2.7 million per year. Meanwhile, the average Boston family with school-aged children would be saving about $450 per child per year on food costs. That’s money put back into the economy. 

On the other hand, consider if Pennsylvania had come through on the threat to place kids with school debt into foster care? The burden on the system would be intense, not to mention the trauma on the children who would be facing worse outcomes after being separated from their families. 

In 1946, Truman understood that feeding kids in school was crucial to the health and security of America. Somewhere along the way, we lost that understanding. As long as some in the political world are trying to make America great again, maybe they should consider starting with feeding American kids.