The case for free student meals

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Most things that show up in my newsfeed are utterly depressing or incredibly frivolous, enough so that I stopped checking Facebook as regularly or leaving it open as a tab in my browser. But this headline was different.

A Philando Castile Memorial Fund Has Wiped Out All Student Lunch Debt in St. Paul,” the headline from Splinter News’ Rafi Schwartz blared.

You know Castile’s name first because he was killed by a police officer, but he worked in nutrition services at a Montessori school in St. Paul, where students loved him and he often helped them pay for lunches, according to multiple news reports. And the Philando Feeds the Children Fund, set up in his honor, just raised more than $70,000 to cover the costs of lunch debt there for the rest of the school year.

It’s pretty incredible, if you think about it. Help families who are struggling to afford their kids’ lunches, help underfunded public schools in the process, and continue the legacy of a man who would’ve wanted to do the same thing. I won’t recount the data about how important nourishment is for learning and childhood wellbeing — that’s well documented, but it should also be obvious.

Why not do it here?

In Guilford County, just over 4,000 families currently owe the public school system money for breakfasts and lunches served at school, Guilford County Schools spokesperson Nora Shoptaw said in response to a Triad City Beat inquiry last week. The school system — which covers Greensboro and High Point, as well as the rest of the county — serves 32,000 breakfasts and 44,500 lunches daily. And as of Oct. 26, the 4,040 families that owe on their balances are in the hole $29,359 Shoptaw said.

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Guilford County Schools admin building

That number fluctuates throughout the year, of course, making the $30,000 or so a moving target that will probably fall some by the end of the school year as families pay off what they owe.

There are considerably more public school students in Guilford County than Forsyth — 72,000 versus 54,000, respectively, according to both school systems’ websites. But for the past several years the poverty rate in Winston-Salem has been a few clicks higher than in Greensboro, suggesting that families in Forsyth are likely in a similar boat.

What if we, as the Triad, decided this situation was unacceptable?

Collectively paying off the breakfast and lunch debt of families in our two counties wouldn’t exactly alleviate the problem; money would need to be raised again the following year, and yes, some parents who could afford to pay might stop after realizing that community members would pick up the tab.

Systemic change is better. Starting this school year, lunch is free for all 1.1 million New York City public school students, the New York Times reported back in September. Boston, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit had already pioneered the approach, according to the article, in part because “some students would prefer to go hungry rather than admit they cannot afford to pay for lunch.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

In an area that continually ranks highly for food insecurity, where we talk a lot about food deserts and food access, taking on student lunch and breakfast debt seems like a glaringly obvious and urgently necessary step.

Creating a pool to clear these families’ school food bills isn’t a long-term solution to our remarkably high (and possibly rising) poverty rates, either. That will take a much more foundational rupture in business as usual.

But this strikes me as a clear and relatively easy way to give direct assistance to kids in need, and by extension their families and the school system. It would be voluntary, giving nobody a reason to object, and it would be pretty immediate, rather than the lethargic (yet imminently important) process of building a lasting fix. And this would also serve the purpose of drawing attention to the issue and giving people an opportunity to plug in, hopefully making it easier to push for deeper conversations and action.

I’m confident we could raise $30,000, as well as a similar amount to cover Forsyth County. I’ll throw in the first $100, and offer free advertising to the cause in these pages.

Who’s with me?

  • Terry L

    I can add in $25.

  • Margo

    What a people are not aware off the food for schools is a surplus from the government warehouse so therefore it should be free for all that attend school.