Why Isn't School Lunch Free for All Kids?
And why are districts hiring debt collectors?
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An agenda item for an upcoming Knox County School Board meeting caught my attention. It raises an important question: Why isn’t school lunch free? I mean, why do we insist that kids pay for the meals they eat at school - meals that are an essential part of ensuring they have the fuel they need to learn?
Yes, you read that right. The Director of Schools in a Tennessee school district is recommending that the system contract with a third-party debt collector in order to collect school lunch debt.
Can we just say this is gross and move on?
The idea that this is even being recommended is certainly troubling.
That a debt collector is paying nothing and is incentivized to collect with any means necessary is also of concern. IC System only gets paid if they collect - and when they do, they keep over 20% of the amount collected.
While I’m not sure how much meal debt Knox County Schools has, I know how much it should have: ZERO.
Student meal debt shouldn’t be a thing. Knox County should simply forgive the debt and find a way to make the meals free for all kids.
Ok, sure, school meals were free for a brief time during the COVID-19 pandemic as federal money provided a way for districts to offer free meals without increasing local expenditures.
Now, the only way for Knox County and other districts in the state to offer free lunch and other meals to kids is for the state to cough up the cash.
You might be surprised to learn, then, that legislation has been filed in recent years to do just that.
Unfortunately, despite having a surplus in excess of $2 billion, Tennessee lawmakers have chosen NOT to make school meals free.
Here’s what happened in 2019 when a bill was filed and heard in committee on school lunches:
For the second year in a row, a committee in the Tennessee General Assembly has essentially endorsed lunch-shaming.
Here’s more on yesterday’s shocking vote:
Republicans voted 4-2 to defeat The Tennessee Hunger-Free Students Act—a bill with three measures to ensure students can eat school lunches and not be punished when parents fail to pay meal fees or a meal debt.
The bill sponsor Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, District 55, said the bill would stop school employees from throwing away a served meal if the student could not pay and would also prohibit schools from punishing or shaming students who accumulated a meal debt.
“We certainly do not want to have a child stigmatized or punished in any way for simply incurring a lunch debt at no fault of their own,” Clemmons said. “We have had incidents in recent years in Tennessee where students have been treated adversely or stigmatized in some manner. Whether it’s placed or made to eat in the principal’s office and eat a peanut butter sandwich by themselves simply because they had a lunch debt or being prevented from going on field trips because of a lunch debt.
While the legislature has yet to find a way to provide free meals to all kids at school, there are some heartwarming stories about efforts to ease the burden of school lunch debt.
Writer Jill Richardson notes:
A Google search for “paying school lunch debt” reveals a long list of recent news stories about good Samaritans paying off the school lunch debt of children whose families cannot afford it.
A Fredonia, New York man paid off $2,000 in school lunch debt in his area, helping 140 families. A Rigby, Idaho tattoo shop raised $1,200. Nationally, a charity called School Lunch Fairy has raised nearly $150,000 to pay off the school lunch debt of children in need.
Again, the question is: Why do we even have school lunch debt?
Why make people fill out forms and jump through hoops so their kids can eat at school?
And directly to Knox County: Why is the solution to your school lunch debt “problem” hiring a debt collector instead of finding a way to forgive the debt and make school lunches free?
I truly believe that breakfast and lunch should be free. However must school food service departments are non school company who wants to be paid for their services. It is no fun for a school principal to be hit with a $3000, bill at the end of the year, but cannot use school funds to pay it off if they even have that amount left in their budget somewhere. Food Service don't cares who pays, they just want to be paid.
My school has gotten a federal grant before to provide free breakfast and lunch to our high school kiddos (sorry, I can’t reference the name of the grant, but we did in fact start getting it several years pre-COVID). Also, I am aware of some districts that are able to leverage community partnerships with corporations (which often are required to pay zero taxes) to provide this service. It’s a win win, because even though the corporations aren’t paying taxes, they are still supporting schools for the public good, AND they benefit when those kids graduate prepared to enter the workforce.