Free lunch for all

Photo by Caroline Betz Student Publications

In the wake of a government shutdown threat that nearly put a halt to free and reduced lunch programs in public schools across America, impacting up to 31 million children, the question of who should be paying for school lunches is more pertinent than ever. 

If students are required to be in a public school building until the age of at least 16, then it is entirely reasonable to require public schools to provide children with a free and nutritious lunch.

Food insecurity has continued to rise in American households as many struggle to recover from the economic toll they have suffered due to the long reaching impacts of the COVID pandemic. Over 51% of students rely on free or reduced lunch to be able to eat. 

These children deserve a guaranteed meal, regardless of whether or not Congress can choose to agree with each other to prevent a government shutdown or whether local lawmakers are feeling extra generous.

Infamously, some school districts have a policy that instructs cafeteria workers to throw out a student’s lunch if they are unable to pay for it at the cash register at the end of the lunch line. 

Not only does this cause extreme embarrassment for the child whose lunch debt is now being advertised to the entire school cafeteria, this adds to the massive food waste issue that plagues American schools. 

Nearly 530,000 tons of food are thrown out in school cafeterias every single year —a figure that is certainly inflated by policies such as the one above.

Almost 40% of Americans are a single paycheck away from dropping below the poverty line, leaving many children at risk of no longer having reliable access to filling and substantial meals. 

The current policies in place surrounding the application process for free or reduced school lunches increase this potential burden. Some school districts only accept applications at the beginning of the school year while others accept applications at any time. 

However, most project at least a 10 business day waiting period for families to hear back. In the event a family is suffering from a financial emergency, this leaves them and their children in an unnecessary struggle while they wait to hear back. 

Implementing a universally-provided school lunch policy would remove this enormous burden from families toeing the poverty line by providing a much-needed safety net program.

By providing school lunches for all children, a major class marker is removed from schools, and many students are protected from potential bullying that could stem from a students’ family economic status being on display during lunchtime every day. 

Whether a student has always been on free lunch, starts at the beginning of a school year or suddenly is on the free lunch program in the middle of the school year, it undeniably puts that student on display if their
classmates notice this change. 

Children deserve a school lunchroom free from bullying based on circumstances entirely out of their control. 

By giving all students free lunch, a student’s financial situation, or sudden change in financial situation, is no longer on display for their classmates to nitpick during lunch.

In a political climate where bipartisan issues are few and far between, providing free school lunch for all public school students is an issue that unifies the majority of Americans. 

After witnessing the feasibility of universally provided school lunches during the pandemic, 60% of Americans support free lunch and 57% support free breakfast provided to all students in public schools. 

Whether a student is in kindergarten or their senior year of high school, they deserve access to a free meal while they are attending school. Students deserve to avoid being embarrassed by cafeteria staff advertising their lunch debt to the entirety of the  cafeteria. 

They deserve to not have their lunch signal their family’s finances. Most of all, students deserve access to free lunches in American public schools.