School Lunch Fairness

In these final days of Session, we play a General Assembly version of mumbly-peg – or maybe it’s a game of egg toss – as bills fly between House and Senate trying to beat the certain legislative death of sine die. One such bill is a k-12 school nutrition bill sponsored by Sen. Katrina Shealy (R – Lexington).

Sen. Shealy’s bill updates our state code to reflect current Federal school lunch requirements. Some argued that the bill was unnecessary since public schools that participate in the federal school lunch program must follow the federal law anyway.  Understanding that the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 drastically changed federal law by giving the USDA greater authority to determine the nutritional value of food served at school, we felt it prudent that the bill should be heard.

The bill came up for a hearing in the k-12 subcommittee that I chair a couple of weeks ago. Rep. John King (D – York) and Rep. Jerry Govan (D – Orangeburg) offered an amendment that addressed “differentiated” lunches that are served to students who participate in the reduced-fee lunch program but forget their lunch money.  Their amendment was simple. All students, regardless of whether they participate in the free lunch program or the reduced-fee lunch program, will receive the same nutritious lunch. Their amendment eliminates the “cheese sandwich” lunch that some reduced-fee lunch participants are given.

After considering their amendment and thinking back to my own experience in school of never knowing what students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, I realized that the school districts were shaming the students for the irresponsible behavior of their parents. The school districts had turned a cheese sandwich into a type of scarlet letter, but were making the wrong person suffer the humility for it.  After some debate between members, the nutrition bill and amendment passed favorably out of the subcommittee. The bill was to be heard at our next full Education Committee meeting.

In the intervening time, several school districts complained about the potential cost of serving a higher-grade lunch rather than the cheese sandwich option. They claimed that this bill would be just another unfunded mandate from the state that they can’t afford. This amendment was not about unfunded mandates. The issue before us is about parental responsibility and equal access to a nutritious lunch.

Another fact to consider are the current reimbursement rates from the federal government to each school district for the meals served in the school lunch program. There are several rates available but the range for the year ending June 30, 2016 are as follows:

  • Lunch fully paid by student: Feds reimburse $.29 to $.43 per lunch
  • Reduced-fee lunch to student: Feds reimburse $2.67 to 2.90 per lunch
  • Free lunch to student: Feds reimburse $3.07 to $3.30 per lunch

The actual cost difference to the student between the reduced-fee lunch and the free lunch is $.40. Let me repeat that. Students participating in the reduced-fee lunch program only pay forty cents for lunch.

To confirm these amounts, I looked at the Greenville County School District website for their published school lunch cost. They charge $2.20 for the fully paid lunch and $.40 for the reduced-fee lunch. The difference between the $2.20 charged for a fully paid lunch and the federal reimbursement of $3.07 for a free lunch brings a host of questions to mind, but that will be for a later discussion.

Now back to the subject at hand. Remember that we are talking about a nutrition bill that, in theory, was designed to encourage students to eat healthier so that their chances of succeeding in school would improve – and some school districts are opposed to that. Never mind that more enlightened school districts in other states have developed procedures to collect lunch money from parents and not humiliate the student . . . or serve them a cheese sandwich. The Stokes County School District guidelines up near Pilot Mountain in North Carolina are a good example. I suspect a lingering Mayberry effect at work there.

The bill with amendment passed favorably out of the Education Committee and will be debated before the full House this week. The school districts and other lobbying groups have increased their pressure on House members to remove the amendment.

Considering that we are in an election year, this debate could turn into a story worthy of Dickens. Some of our wealthier school districts could be revealed to have attitudes more akin to 19th century workhouses than to 21st century models of educational opportunity. Maybe these districts just see another Oliver Twist when they slap down a cheese sandwich (not even grilled? as my ten year old asked) on a student’s reduced-fee lunch plate despite their lofty nutrition statements. And the best question of all: Which House member will vote against a hungry student and reveal themselves to be an authentic Mr. Bumbles, the misguided workhouse bureaucrat who refused young Oliver a little more food?

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Tommy Stringer