It’s one thing to talk about all the starving children in Third World or developing countries; it’s another to address the issue of kids in America who don’t have enough to eat.The very thought of one child, let alone millions, going to bed hungry is disturbing. Then expand on that theme with a young boy or girl waking up hungry each morning and heading off to school having eaten little or no food.We’ve known for decades that a hungry child probably will not do well in the classroom and that when children receive daily meals they not only are more likely to come to school but also perform better academically, in class and on standardized tests.Since the 1930s, partly as an extension of the farm program, the federal government has been involved with supplying food for schoolchildren who could not afford it. What started out as providing farm “commodities” to the schools turned into a free-lunch program for needy kids.Today, with many schoolchildren qualifying as “economically disadvantaged,” the government supplies free and reduced-price meals (breakfast, lunch and, in many cases, after-school snacks) for students in more than 100,000 schools nationwide.While this program feeds millions of children, it does not feed all who would be eligible. Many needy kids are still going hungry, either because parents can’t navigate the system or don’t fill out proper paperwork to document income status, or — and this is a big problem — there is a stigma.There is a considerable drop-off in the percentage of students in high school, compared with those in middle and elementary grades, who receive free or reduced-price lunches. Much of that is because of the stigma attached to it.The Agriculture Department, which operates the lunch program, has launched a pilot project that’s gaining acceptance among districts around the country: universal free lunch. That means in districts with large numbers of low-income students, all children eat free meals at school regardless of income.The Dallas school district, with 89 percent of its 159,000 students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, announced this month that it will be going to the universal plan, offering free meals to every student. It joins several other districts, including Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, parts of New York City and Boston.Dallas expects to save money through the elimination of jobs designed to keep up with all the paperwork, according to The Dallas Morning News. The Fort Worth district has no plans to go to the universal program right now though 83 percent of its 84,600 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, said Glenn Headlee, director of Child Nutrition Services. Noting that the total revenue the district receives for meals from paying students (reduced or full fees) is more than $1.8 million a year, Headlee said the district would have to cover that loss from the general fund if it went to universal free meals.“It is possible in the future, at the current growth rate per year of approximately 1 percent to 1.25 percent in qualified students, that the district could consider going to universal free lunch once the threshold is reached of 90 percent,” he said.In elementary schools, Fort Worth serves more than 5.7 million free, more than 358,000 reduced-price and about 620,200 paid meals a year. In high school, consistent with the national trend, the figures are: 2.85 million free, 203,655 reduced-price and 293,709 paid.It appears that the Fort Worth district is six years or so away from considering the universal route.But if universal free meals can improve attendance, schoolwork and test scores while removing a stigma for students and more work for district employees, then it might be the right path for thousands of other school districts across the nation.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders