Why should every kid get a free meal?
That’s the question my neighbor asked me after I said I think all students at our children’s school should get to eat lunch for free.
We were discussing the topic because our school, just like 95 percent of public schools nationally, participates in the National School Lunch Program, one of the longest-running and most successful food assistance efforts in this country.
Congress created national school lunches 70 years ago this year.
A federal investigation into the health problems that caused young men to be rejected for the draft during World War II had found that childhood malnutrition was the primary cause.
Ever since, the program has been helping safeguard the health of our nation’s children and improve the prospects for our shared future.
As a nutrition professional, I’ve seen the overwhelming positive health outcomes linked to making healthy meals available to children for free or low cost at school.
The research shows that students who participate have better nutrition than nonparticipants.
In the field of public health, feeding children in school has proved to be one of the most successful nutrition interventions that exist.
So why do we still have hungry children in schools?
Two reasons: an abhorrent amount of paperwork and the social stigma that surrounds free lunches.
Here in Texas, about one out of every four students lives in a food insecure household, according to Feeding America.
The Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as experiencing times when there is not enough food in a household or there’s real uncertainty around having food.
There are absolutely no excuses for hungry children in Texas.
Still, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010-11 Texas had more than 2 million public school students eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch — more than half of all children in Texas public schools at the time.
Many of these children have yet to benefit from the National School Lunch Program and the related School Breakfast Program.
Data show many children who are eligible do not participate.
Parents or caregivers may miss filling out the annual required forms or, sometimes, they can’t read the forms for qualification, or the paperwork never got to them.
Stigmatizing economic struggles is also part of the problem.
In the 1970s and 1980s, I myself received free lunches through the program. To this day, I remember the social stigma surrounding it.
We need to remove as much social and class division as possible around food assistance programs.
Making sitting down and sharing a healthy meal together the new normal in our schools would be a good start.
A provision in the law, called the Community Eligibility Provision, allows for school districts and parents to give all students who need them healthy meals during the school day, while avoiding unnecessary paperwork.
A pilot initiative in the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act made it easier for students from participating schools and low-income families to eliminate much of the yearly required forms, making free lunches and breakfast universal for every student.
Cafeteria employees no longer needed to act as debt collectors. No more collecting unpaid fees or past-due amounts for meals.
These strategies create a better learning environment for all involved.
That’s why school districts in and around Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio are among those using the provision to great success.
Still, there are numerous smaller school districts in Texas that either don’t understand the steps needed to get started or haven’t explored the option.
The good news is, tools and resources to help these districts exist online through the Food Research Action Center and others.
We as adults like to say that there is no such thing as a free lunch. But this should not apply to our children.
We must remove as much social and class division as possible around food assistance, because every child is worthy of being nourished.
Likewise, every community deserves the benefits of a population where childhood malnutrition, food insecurity and hunger become relics of the past.
Diane Papillion is a lecturer of nutritional sciences at The University of Texas at Austin.