There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but exceptions should be made for children. After encountering problems with its free/reduced lunch program, several school districts in cities around the country are experimenting with a new way of handling cafeteria payments: free meals for all students, regardless of their families’ income.
This year, some Boston schools will join schools in other cities like Chicago, Detroit and Atlanta in handing free lunches to all of its students – no questions asked. To qualify for this radical approach, which is funded by the federal government, school districts must have a high concentration of economically disadvantaged students.
The program seems promising, so why not afford the same offer to all American students? Here are five reasons to give every child in the country a free lunch:
1. No More Hungry Children
Although most of the kids who go hungry throughout the day would technically qualify for a free or reduced lunch, getting that meal isn’t always so simple: parents aren’t always made aware of this option, essential paperwork doesn’t get filled out due to language barriers, and pride and embarrassment stops some from applying at all.
By allowing every kid a free lunch, many obstacles are erased. Without the structural failures and excuses, no student should have to go without a midday meal. That goes for kids of all economic backgrounds, too. How often does a student forget his or her lunchbox or money at home?
2. School Employees are No Longer Debt Collectors
Most teachers and faculty are in the profession because they care about kids; therefore, it’s difficult to stand by and watch their students go hungry. When they notice a student foregoing lunch, they’ll often lend kids personal money or let them have it on a credit system from the cafeteria.
Subsequently, this puts the staff in the uncomfortable position of trying to track down the money later. Their jobs are complicated enough without having to call parents and guardians to ask for money – often in cases where they know there isn’t money available.
As a result, a lot of these loaned lunches go unpaid. Boston estimated that it lost $350,000 annually by fronting lunches in these circumstances, and the money had to be taken from other areas of the educational budget just to cover them. By having federal funds to cover the lunches for everyone, school officials no longer have to worry about taking funds marked for instructional purposes just to feed its students.
3. It Eliminates the Class Divide
The existing free/reduced lunch system seems to wind up reinforcing a class divide amongst students. Kids who bring a lunch are considered well-to-do, while those who wait in a cafeteria line are considered poorer.
Previously, Boston ran into some problems when it received money to give a portion of its needy students free breakfast. All of the students could see which kids were receiving complimentary milk and pastries when others were assumed to have eaten breakfast at home. This not only arouses jealousy on the part of the kids who don’t get food, but shame in the kids who had to get special treatment.
In eliminating the obvious sense of who “needs” free food, it will also eradicate the stigma attached to the cafeteria meals. Our children should be nourished, not shamed.
4. Lunches Lead to Learning
While an argument could be made that funds should be applied toward educational instruction, not food, the counterargument is that students need to be fed to ensure proper education. There are multiple studies that show kids who eat breakfast perform better at school. Surely, the same logic would carry over to lunch: students who aren’t nourished cannot focus on academics.
In fact, the healthier the meals are served to kids, the better the kids do. Schools that commit themselves to providing nutritious meals found that not only did grades and test scores improve, but behavioral problems decreased dramatically. If offering healthier meals can make that much of a difference, consider how much we’re hindering our students who are not eating lunch at all.
5. Nutritional Possibilities
On the topic of nutrition, just think of the potential health benefits that a school-wide free lunch program could yield. A school-wide free lunch means an increase in students of all economic levels eating the cafeteria’s food and less junk food being brought in from home. This boosted school lunch participation could result in healthier kids… provided the proper food is served.
What better way to start tackling childhood obesity than by overhauling the school lunch program? Efforts are already underway to raise nutrition standards in school lunches. While we’re finding a way to give all students a complimentary meal, we could also find ways to give them healthier options.
Photo credits: Thinkstock
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