Childrens' advocates press congress to extend free school meal program

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Published Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Eric Galatas

(Colorado News Connection) During the COVID health emergency, the federal government made school meals available for free to all students, regardless of their financial situation at home. Children's advocates now are urging Congress to make that change permanent in its recovery legislation

Ashley Wheeland, director of public policy with Hunger Free Colorado, said the move would reduce child hunger and food insecurity, and could put an end to lunch-line shaming when families fall behind on bills and reduce the stigma that kids who qualify for free or reduced price meals experience.

"They are the students that need help, they are the 'poor kids,'" said Wheeland. "They take that with them in their stress every day. Actually, as children get older, we see less and less of them participating in this programming because of that shame and that stigma; they don't want to be 'that kid.'"

Some school cashiers have taken lunch trays away from children with so-called lunch debt, giving them cheaper replacements which have become known as a "stigma sandwich." Some schools stamp the student's hand with a message to parents: "I need lunch money." 

Critics of continuing the free-meals-for-all program cite high costs, and others worry it could lead to dependency on government assistance.

Proponents point to research showing that investing in children pays off down the road, in better health outcomes and economic opportunity. 

Wheeland said when kids have healthy food in their stomach, they're able to pay attention in class, which leads to greater academic achievement. She said those kids will be more likely to graduate and to land jobs that pay enough to not need public assistance.

"When children have healthy meals, they can thrive throughout their lives," said Wheeland. "And it's really important that we ensure that every kid has the food that they need to succeed, and in the end that will help all of us."

Wheeland said making free meals for students permanent also would cut administrative costs, including untold hours spent by principals and teachers not spent on education. 

Schools would no longer have to field applications, determine eligibility, and meet federal requirements including reporting each meal served to the correct reimbursement category.

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