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.
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 educationdata.org, 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.”
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.
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?