Should school lunch be a government entitlement? Or is it a deeper debate than just feeding kids?

The Sioux Falls school board announced today that the days of free lunch are coming to an end in the school district next week for those who haven’t signed up for free or reduced-price lunch. And they may have reignited a bill that was killed last year, in what could be a one of the more challenging debates for legislators. Because the cost isn’t insignificant, and neither is the issue:

The total school lunch debt in the district is about $92,000, child nutrition coordinator Gay Anderson said. The district accrues about $3,000 each day in lunch debt, community relations coordinator DeeAnn Konrad said, compared with a total yearlong debt of $7,000 more than a decade ago in 2012.


But starting Dec. 4, the district will have to enforce school board policy, stating students with meal accounts in debt of $75 or more will not be provided further meals “until the account is back in good standing,” or if a payment plan is set up with the student’s parents or guardians.

Read that here.

They accrue $3000 in school lunch debt each day? Good lord. What do you do with that?   And that’s a group who fall outside of those who have signed up for free/reduced cost programs.

So how do you categorize that group?

Before it was electronically tracked, I know I’ve had kids a time or two forget to deliver low-on-lunch-money-notices.. and they found themselves getting a sterner note, or worse, the dreaded cheese sandwich, instantly prompting them to go “Daaad.. I need lunch money.”  Keeping track was never helped by those deciding to eat breakfast at school, order a la carte, etcetera. But it was always remedied quickly.   In more recent years, I just get a nagging daily notice from the school in my e-mail box as soon as the balance goes below $20.

But it’s not as simple as that.  Is it parents not keeping track? No. And it’s concerning as a society that we seem to have this problem as schools keep accruing significant debt for feeding kids.

As the spouse of a long-time educator & school administrator, I’ve heard more than once that there are kids out there that the only hot or nutritious meal they get in a day may be the one they get in school. Or worse, it might be their only meal. And I don’t think most people would argue with the statement that Teachers have a much harder time educating kids who are starving.  But how do we fix it? And where is this problem originating?

What makes up this gap?  According to, it is noted..

Children unable to afford a proper meal are defined as being food-insecure; they lack reliable access to food. Many of those children who owe school meal debt are part of families who earn too much to be considered for free or reduced lunch, but also earn too little to afford regular school meals.

  • 1 million students receive free school breakfast, compared to 1.7 million who pay a reduced price of $0.40, and 7.7 million who pay the full price.
  • 8 million students receive free school lunches, compared to 0.74 million who pay a reduced price of $0.30 and 2.23 million students who pay full price.

The fact that the number of full-price lunches is just over 15% nationally is somewhat shocking.  Because it isn’t a gap. The numbers seem to be saying that free and reduced price lunches are the majority.  If this is accurate locally, the Sioux Falls School District is accruing a $3k a day cost they have to try to chase that in all actuality is a portion of the 15% who haven’t signed up for a free or reduced cost program?

South Dakota is one of the few states that has no statewide policy on school lunch debt, preferring to leave it to individual districts.  This coming January lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are already offering solutions that propose to solve the problem.

If the majority of school lunches are free or reduced cost anyway, why don’t we at least remove the issue and the overhead of having schools having to chase that debt?  We argue that schools should have fewer mandates anyway… which comes right before we put new ones on them, and legislators try to send their funding elsewhere.  So, why not make it free?  Or is the concept of a free lunch for public school children a tougher debate than that?

During the last legislative session, a Democrat-sponsored measure lost in committee which proposed to open up the state’s checkbook for school lunches. Just flat out making it a Department of Education expense. Which counted among it’s opponents, the Department of Education, as well as some legislators individually:

Graves told the committee that during the two years free meals were offered, dozens of meals would be thrown out daily without being touched by students. Graves provided an anecdote about the visit of a federal delegate for the program. Graves wanted to demonstrate how much food was being wasted and so he spread out the unopened, pre-packaged items along two, eight-foot-long tables.

“I decided I wasn’t going to show the member of the federal delegation because I was embarrassed,” Graves said.


Republican Senator Jim Bolin also spoke in opposition to the bill citing his experience as a former teacher.

“What you’re really doing here, if this bill were to pass, is providing what I would call, sort of the equivalent of a middle-class entitlement for those that can afford lunches already,” Bolin said. “It doesn’t seem right to me.”

Read that here.

The Democrat bill that was attempted last year which is certain to return, and a Republican sponsored measure for 2024 differ somewhat..

Wittman’s bill had a fiscal note that estimated ongoing budgetary impacts at $38.6 million, while Deutsch said his bill, which he directed the Legislative Research Council to draft at his direction, has a fiscal impact estimated by the LRC to be $394,095.

Read that here.

Whether there are competing measures, it’s a given that either one of them will reopen the attempts to distill the issue down to cause and effect, as they try to identify a problem that government can solve by making a law, or elevating the issue from the level of the school district.  No one would argue that they want kids to go hungry. But, can they come up with a solution that works?

Your thoughts? Or your solutions?

60 thoughts on “Should school lunch be a government entitlement? Or is it a deeper debate than just feeding kids?”

  1. If you can’t figure out how to feed every child who attends school, please – just get out of government. We are an agricultural state, for God’s sake. The federal government pays part of the bill already. And look at how much the state received in Covid funds alone. Billions!

    “So… wait… let’s check the list here… sorry Lily… you don’t get a hot meal today. You go to that line.”


    1. The state funded $6.5 million in Kristi Noem ads since April. About $40,000 a day. Supposedly to lure a few more out-of-state people to move here.

      So, there may be no money left for feeding kids. That’s socialism, anyway.

        1. How about $130 billion in Ukraine funding.

          This country doesn’t prioritize itself. That is all you need to know on why Donald Trump is an 800lb political machine.

          1. if you have the plan of trump’s second term, you should give it to trump. he had no plan the first time around, though many made themselves see the illusion of one, ala Winston Smith’s math lesson. he’s an 800 pound gangster.

          2. The country can’t prioritize itself when any attempts are met with screams of “socialism” when it comes to helping people but crickets when it comes to helping Corp America. On Ukraine, we need to keep that going because it is pennies of our defense budget to destroy an enemy super power without spilling the blood of Americans. Probably the best bang for our buck wr have gotten in 50 years. Here’s an idea, we can do both.

    2. This story pertains to the ” do gooders” who who thought picking up the tab for unpaid lunches was a good idea.. They thought they were doing a noble thing, and some would agree. Two things are wrong here: the benevolent people had no idea how many others would then feel entitled to have their students also eat free. Thus they quit paying as well, thinking that someone would also pick up their tab. Do those benevolent donors qqeven know about federal income guidelines? This means that students who fall within those levels can get reduced or free meals. Information is sent to the district patrons each year, and applications are readily provided, but some people are too lazy to fill them out. (I do not know of any schools who are unwilling to lend a hand if people need help with completing). Because others are picking up the tab on the necessities like their children’s school lunches,
      entitled people now can use their income for cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, cell phones, cable…so congratulations to those of you that think taxpayers or private citizens should pick up lunch tabs while adding one more layer to an already irresponsible society.

    3. please explain why you think the taxpayers should pay your child support for you.

      I guess a generation which thinks the taxpayers should pay off their student loans for them will have no problem, once they become parents, demanding the government pay their child support as well.

      1. Hey Mr. Scrooge, go read Black Hills Bobs post for an informative reasoning why making sure children don’t starve is important.

        1. And his post shows his disdain for the Governor, Secretary Graves, and for turning down federal welfare.
          Fact: in 2011 16 per cent of ages 5-18 in South Dakota were classified as obese, and more P.E. Classes and physical fitness information in our schools was pushed. In 2021 over 18 per cent in a similar age bracket were classified as obese. So is hunger really becoming more of a glaring problem??
          People in the earlier times used to have larger families than now. Yet the people provided for their children. When did priorities change?

          1. Holy cow Batman, someone’s been living in a complete cave.

            People had larger families “way back when” because we had a larger agrarian population so it meant more hands to help. Also people’s purchasing power was much higher. Take a look at the how the costs in housing, education, healthcare, and food have increased and then compare that to how much the average workers wages have increased since the 1970s. Spoiler, some of those costs have gone up over 300% while the wages for average workers as gone up by less than 20%.

            Say hi to the three ghosts that hopefully visit you on Christmas Eve.

              1. You’re insanely dense, dumb, or cruel for thinking this is just about free food. It’s about wanting to create a better academic environment for our children to thrive in. But hey, you got yours and screw the future right?

          2. Obesity these days is tied to poverty, not wealth like it was in the past. Suggesting people can afford food because their kids are fat is not the correlation the facts are pointing too. Fatty foods are cheap compared to healthy foods. Even exercise can have higher barriers for utilization by the poor but that is definitely something I can get behind as lacking any sort of focus on by our society. Kick your kids outside again. It will be good for them and I also feel we can buy kids a healthy lunch at school and take all the complexity out of it. That is a good use of taxpayer dollars imo compared to the future incarceration and welfare dependency that failure in school can lead to.

  2. Actually I think Graves IS arguing in favor of having kids go hungry. Dude is the worst thing to happen to SD education.

    1. There are reasons one might oppose free meals for elementary school children, but it’s daft to object because one fears lunches will be wasted. While tossing out good food is stupid & sinful, that’s a problem easily solved. Whenever a surplus remains, let’s offer second helpings – vital nutrition hungry kids would cherish. Schools can feed janitors, teachers’ assistants, resource officers, and volunteers who invest time nurturing kids and keeping them safe. Schools can send leftovers home to sustain impoverished families, or schools can donate food to philanthropic groups that observe the Biblical imperative: “Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.”

      1. That makes too much sense. USDA Child and Adult Food Care Program won’t allow children to take what they’ll eat or feeding adults.

        A sidebar conversation is the quality of the environment while students are eating. They are rushed to eat so the next student group can eat and being outdoors for recess seems more important to some, than food. Kids, like adults are social and a great program would acknowledge this tenant of kids nature. A bigger conversation in each district needs to happen to support our number one customer, students. We cannot solve problems with the same old thinking and strategies.

  3. Everyone always complains about helping others overseas when we could be helping people here. Why not start with feeding kids? Can we all get on board with this and not scream socialism?

    1. The state requires the kids be educated, right? Why does that not include feeding them when they’re essentially held captive by the government?

      1. This is the most coherent argument for funding school lunches. We all get compassion. I’d like to think we all understand fiscal responsibility, but some things are aspirational. Computer attendance is enforced by our criminal code. If parents don’t send their kids to school they can be charged with a crime and jailed. Frankly, if the state demands custody over meal time they’re required to feed them, just like inmates.

    2. Attitudes like this make it impossible to help anyone. I guess kids should just starve to death so the generational welfare ends with them or we can fill our new prison. That seems like a much better option.

    3. anonymous at 9:09 AM, you get it.


      nothing will get this very simple concept across faster than running the unpaid lunch bills through the DSS’ division pf child support enforcement.

      The schools should just send the bills there.

      Another way to do it would be to send the bills to the non-custodial parents who are paying child support and will be interested to learn it isn’t being spent feeding the kids.
      The howling will be audible all over the state.

      1. child support is child support. lunch money is lunch money. as a person who has paid both i have long known the difference. if you’re ready to really solve a problem instead of derailing solutions, let us know.

  4. It is ludicrous to argue that the citizens of South Dakota should be paying for the lunches of half of the students in the state. Half of our population is not too poor to feed their own children, especially with all of the government assistance that people are already receiving. It is even more ludicrous to argue that the taxpayers should be forced to pay for every student’s lunch regardless of their parents’ wealth.

    1. It’s an education expense. You pay for all of the whiteboards used in classrooms, how is food any different?

    2. Why isn’t the same outrage pointed at the wealthy not paying their taxes? Capping Social Security, just not paying income taxes and forcing a de-funded IRS to allow that, or just cutting those taxes for the wealthy all seem to be more abhorrent to me than making being well nourished part of the free public education experience for children.

  5. It would be next to impossible for the school to pack leftover food for the kids to take home.
    You would have to pay more to have this done.
    If they don’t eat it at school they sure won’t eat it at home. More than half of the meals are left on the tray. It just isn’t very good.
    But I don’t think the students should be punished for their parents actions. Or inactions.

  6. What is going on in SF that 50% of kids can’t afford lunch? This is a major societal problem beyond school lunch.

  7. For the FY 2023, the SD state budget was roughly $7.4 billion. Even using Wittman’s proposal and the estimated impact of $38.6 million, we’re talking about an item that would be equivalent to 0.52% of that budget to make sure kids are fed.

    Yes, its bullshit that everyone has to step up to cover for parents who either can’t or won’t pay and there will be free riders on this. At some point though, even in conservative, pull-your-self up by the bootstraps place like SD, there has to be concern for the common good. Children going hungry is wrong and everyone suffers for it. This is a no brainer.

    For the fiscal hawks in the room, either cut spending elsewhere of bump sales tax up to 4.3% (that would cover $34.7 million of the cost). No one will notice the hike, just like most people have not noticed the cut.

    Source for budget amount and tax cut:

  8. It’s not about feeding the hungry kids. It’s about punishing irresponsible parents by making their kids suffer. It is always about punishment with conservatives.

  9. The conundrum is what to do if/when a government scuttles the economy and forces people onto welfare thinking that modern advanced predictive technology will make the “command economy” viable (printing just ahead of inflation and using technocracy to lower costs as needed to combat the inflation on multiple fronts).

    The problem is that humans suffer from confirmation bias tendencies. Managers of a centralized command economy can always justify to themselves that the margin created from technology belongs to them and should not be distributed back into the economy at large.

    I’m thinking maybe Christians are correct about one thing .. we’re broken. A competitive dynamic free market is a hedge against our own nature to take more than we’ve earned.

  10. Joe Graves should resign for the good of the state.

    The guy cares more about his ego and ambitions than SD students.

    Case in point: he spent three months writing a book literally no one has asked for and turned down $7.5 million to alleviate a clear issue in SD. Where are that clown’s priorities?

  11. I don’t want any kid to go hungry. That being said, parents need to take responsibility for the kids they have, including feeding them a school lunch and breakfast. We have been conditioned to think that it’s the government’s responsibility to take care of us from cradle to grave if we run into a problem. And it is not!

    I am sure there are some who need the help, but the majority can afford to feed their own kids but think why if the government will do it instead. Priorities!

    1. Maybe if you viewed helping ensure student success as an investment it would change your view a bit. Its proven that the more academically students are able to succeed and thrive at school, the far lower their chances are of being a drain on the system later in life (lower teen pregnancy rates, higher educated individuals yield higher GDPs, not having to pay for their rehab or prison stays, etc.)

  12. The current system is SO inefficient for schools. I can’t imagine how many hours are wasted scanning each student’s card, checking on balances, explaining to kids with a negative balance that the need to get their parents to put more money on their cards, administering the balance notification system….. my kids say it takes much longer now for them to get their lunches than it did during the pandemic when everyone got a free lunch even though there are fewer kids being served now than during the free lunch program. Let’s streamline things for the school staff so they can spend their time actually… oh, I don’t know… teaching?

    Even beyond the nutritional issue, I really hate that some kids out there are being embarrassed because of something their parents didn’t do. That embarrassment can have an impact on their social interactions as other kids pick up on what’s going on. Potentially, it can leave psychological scars that can manifest in all sorts of ways later…..

    If the government budget were filled with nothing but essentials, it would be a tougher call. But we all know there’s NOT the case. I definitely think school lunches are a higher priority than some of the things in the state budget…!

  13. I think one of the biggest questions many have is why is a system that we all assumed worked for decades all of a sudden going down the drain in terms of making sure kids get a hot meal?

    1. The school lunch system has not been working for years with regard to the poor. The poor are invisible and keep their heads and hands down as they sit hungry. Also gone are the state funded milk break at mid-morning to keep the younger students energized. Let’s smartly rethink what it’s like to be an invisible child.

      1. free and reduced price meals have been available for years for the poor, whoever they are.

        This is about deadbeat parents who dont want to support their kids..

        Once you get that simple concept through your head, it’s obvious who should be paying it.

        1. so new spending would set up a new enforcement effort at dss, then, instead of just feeding kids.
          the string that’s always attached to federal help is that the funds only cover the start of a new social program and won’t perpetually fund it. that leaves states holding the bag on a new ongoing expense they may have not been able to handle to begin with. so recognize. that and plan up front to make a durable ongoing program. one that doesn’t come at the expense of adding things to the list of what is already underfunded in education.

    2. Really good point. It’s sad how far down the road we are on this. Parents have a couple options. Pay for school lunch, sign up for free lunch, or pack a lunch. We’re talking about parents who have decided not to do any of the three. Almost every community has options for food distribution, from traditional food banks and shelters, to food giveaways, to charities and churches. Food stamps and WIC are statewide. If a parent isn’t willing to pay, and they’re not willing to fill out a form, then pack a lunch. Now, we’re talking about parents who look at their options and say, “Ya know kid, you’ll just have to figure it out. I don’t want to pack a lunch for you and I won’t sign the form.” I would love to think parents would step up to the plate, but if a kid honestly goes hungry at school I don’t know if there’s a way to legislate out of that. Someone has to care for the kids.

      1. It is not all the parent’s fault. When people,who thought they were doing a good thing, started packing weekend backpacks for children, it stymied the incentive and obligation for parents to provide for their own children. The message gotten was that someone out there was going to figure out how to provide for the needs and wants of family members of others.
        Even though every school provides free or reduced cost meals , some on here obviously think it is too much to ask to have a form filled out.. When those who can afford meals look at a benefactor who picks up unpaid tabs, they decide to let those benevolent people pick up THEIR children’s tabs as well. Sadly, people, who think they are doing a good turn, are actually enabling people to be irresponsible.

  14. I don’t want children to go hungry. Nor do I want the State to be in charge of the lunch programs. Are children allowed to bring a lunch from home? That’s what we did when I was little, and poor, and I got food that I liked and didn’t throw away and was still good for me. And I often went home for lunch, as did many of my friends, but that was a small town, not SF or RC. Can kids still do that? What do we do about kids who have food allergies and need to be accommodated?

  15. “Compromise” wasn’t always a dirty word.

    Republicans may be willing to get rid of all of this school lunch bureaucracy and fund the program if Democrats would give a little too. Liberals could put their egos aside and let Governor Noem place her likeness on the cafeteria milk cartons.

    Problem. Solved.

  16. Feeding South Dakota estimates that nearly 25,000 children in our state face hunger each and every day. Yet, in the infinite wisdom of our Governor, South Dakota turned down $7.5 million to help feed kids because “it was too challenging to administer the program”. What a strange cop-out when 43 other states have figured it out and are administering the program. Throw in the fact that the State has wasted nearly $10 million of taxpayer’s dollars on the Meth “We’re On It” embarrassment and the do nothing “Freedom Works Here” campaign. (How in the world did the legislature allow these expenditures to occur is beyond me. Isn’t the legislature responsible and accountable for these kinds of things?)

    Secretary Graves’ and Sen. Bolin’s anecdotal comments (i.e. lacking in firm data) concerning food waste, etc. hold little water when compared to the National Restaurant Association’s estimate that America’s restaurants waste 10% of their food each year. Schools have done a great job of ensuring that certain items (particularly pre-packaged ones) are not tossed into the garbage but are placed in recyclable/reusable containers for future student use. Even so, a 10% level of waste is considered nominally acceptable. (I could go further into Sec. Graves and why he is unfit for office, but that is for another day.)

    The concept of free school lunch for all is not new. USDA provided funds a few years ago to South Dakota’s schools so that everyone could enjoy a breakfast and a lunch. In some Wyoming schools, free breakfast and lunch have been a staple for years.

    Research has proven that hunger among our students leads to increased school absences, tardiness, school suspensions, and a significant drop in reading and math scores. You think it costs a lot to feed South Dakota’s students? Kids classified as hungry are twice as likely as their non-hungry peers to be receiving special education services and to have repeated a grade. The cost for special education services is double that of a child who does not need them. If a child repeats a grade, it can cost four times as much as a student who neither needs special education nor repeats a grade. I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Bottom line, kids who eat healthy meals do better in school and actually save schools money!

    It’s time for South Dakota’s leaders to stop finger pointing, blaming schools, parents and others for a very solvable problem. One idea is to use some of the millions of dollars in surplus funds each year that has been placed into the State’s “rainy day” fund (which I’ve been told is to be used in case ND invades).

    If the State isn’t going to accept federal funds to help alleviate hunger amongst our most vulnerable kids, then the State needs to step up and develop its own solution. It really is that simple.

  17. South Dakota has a long history of turning down federal funds that it deems to be ‘welfare assistance’…..Governor Noem certainly did this summer when she nixed the USDA food funding. However, South Dakota has never turned down a federal dollar that is used to support and enhance national defense. If it makes it more palatable, rather than thinking of the school children as “welfare orphans” and “anchor babies” looking for handouts so their mothers can continue to shoot-up meth, you viewed school lunch as providing the sustenance to grow the next generation of communist-fighting patriots, I would encourage you to view the necessity of good school nutrition as such. Simply put, you cannot run an army on an empty stomach.

  18. 75% of American children are NOT fit to join the military. Food insecurity is one of many factors. Our Federally elected officials need to work on adding food, exercise, social-emotional behavior to the NDAA in support of the value of freedom in our republic or the USA will be no more…AND our State officials need to do the right by kids! If Noem is a patriot she would feed kids and offer incentives to create healthy and intelligent students.

  19. lunch money is child support.
    make the deadbeat parents pay it.
    Send the bills to the Division of Child Support at DSS. Many of the kids whose parents aren’t paying are probably already in that system; deduct what is owed from the child support before it is forwarded on to the recipient.

    I realize there are a lot of Mad Dads in the legislature who would like the state to cover all the costs of supporting their kids, but hopefully there are enough responsible parents there to get this through

  20. The responsibility to craft a solution to the problem of hungry school children clearly rests with the legislature, which to this point, has done nothing. The Legislature has injected itself into the administration of public schools in nearly countless other school issues but has left the school lunch conundrum up to local boards and local tax payers. Meanwhile, they have involved themselves with legislation regarding library books, sports participation, bathroom eligibility, and other exercises in micro management. It’s time to turn their talents and imagination, as well as the state’s financial resources, to this issue.

      1. call a lawyer. you need an expert intervention to know the differences between court-ordered child support and school lunch money.

        1. the difference between lunch money owed to the school and child support owed to a parent (or grandparent) is one of semantics, and a judicial one where you need a small -claims court to order the payment. Just get judges to order the balance due to be paid; the legislature can define it as child support.
          The reason I think it should go through the DSS division of child support is that they are already processing child support payments for many of the state’s children. They’ve already got the money paid by one parent coming into their office. If the custodial parent on the receiving end of those payments isn’t spending it on school lunches, the DSS can deduct it from the total amount sent on to the custodial parent, and send a check to the school district at the end of the school year. Just get a court order to do it.

  21. Two weeks late to the party, but it’s still worth saying…

    1. Is payment a statewide problem, or specific to a few school districts? Before any changes are made to current law, the legislature should find out where problems exist. It may be that a half dozen districts have the most troubles, and that local solutions may still be the best.

    2. As for “hungry children,” well, I’ve seen real hunger when I lived in Brazil 50 years ago, and have never seen anything close to that in this country. Quite the opposite — as a prosperous nation, one-third of all children under 18 are fat, and 3/4s of military-age adults don’t meet standards to serve. I’m dubious of Feeding South Dakota’s 25,000 figure — I would need to see how they add that up — nor am I swayed by anecdotes that school lunches may be the only hot meal some children get. These are emotion-based arguments, not fact-based, and the evidence for hunger is weak.

    3. I’m a former teacher. Like Supt. Graves, I witnessed daily the waste in school lunch rooms. Later, as a newspaper editor, I once assigned a story that found more than 40 percent of school lunches got thrown away by the kids, and this was 30 years ago. The food’s fine, but the kids like a narrow range of items, high in sugar and starches, so too often they reject salads and veggies and fruits. I don’t have answers to this issue.

    Bottom line: No one’s been hospitalized, let alone died, from malnutrition in the U.S. in close to a century. Let’s not conflate payment issues with exaggerations about hunger — it’s a non sequitur.

Comments are closed.