My View

What If We Just Feed Them?
By KEVIN J. WELLEN/School Administrator, March 2020

WHEN IT COMES to collecting on overdue school lunch bills, lawmakers and news media are focusing on the wrong problem. The simple solution: Feed the kids!

Laws now are being prepared that forbid public schools from humiliating students with unpaid lunch bills. Bill payment is an adult problem that creates suffering for kids. Students are in the care of their school between seven and 11 hours a day when you include time on a bus and after-school activities. We are at the point when meals ought to be as integral to public schooling as textbooks and computers.

This is not a new concept. The 1,000-student district I lead in Menahga, Minn., where 47 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, looked at the real numbers. Our total paid meal revenue amounted to less than 1 percent of our total budget, and we were chasing debts, managing lunch accounts and trying to figure out how to feed children we knew should qualify but had filed no paperwork.

Food Insecurity
We concluded it was simpler to not charge anyone if we could get the majority to fill out the forms. We have chosen to offer this program because we estimate that another 10-20 percent of families could qualify for free or reduced-price meals but were not completing the requisite forms for a number of reasons — pride, fear, language barriers or confusion.

Our school board decided that students should not suffer food insecurity because of adult issues and certainly not because of the parents’ inability to pay. Menahga is in its fourth school year of not charging any students for breakfast or lunch. As a result, we have increased our daily meal participation by about 20 percent. We have not had to chase any unpaid bills in those four years.

I don’t see this as a small-district anomaly. Nearly 20 percent of all U.S. public school students qualify federally for the Universal Free School Meals program and fill out no forms. These schools include all those in New York City, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Detroit and Dallas. None of their kids pay for school meals. The difference is our families are required to fill out forms, which can be extremely challenging when we choose to pay for our students’ meals if they haven’t qualified.

Ending Humiliation
The most current federal reports from 2014-15 place the number of public school students receiving free and reduced-price lunches at 51.8 percent nationwide. If even 15 percent of students are missed due to forms not being submitted, it would mean two-thirds of all school-age children should qualify.

With an historically low 3.5 percent unemployment rate today, how is it that more than half of the students in the U.S. still qualify? The only conclusion I can draw is that more than half of those employed have a household income that lingers below the poverty level.

The people in my community, our state and our country are proud. Making them complete a form to prove their kids are eligible for free lunch is just wrong. Humiliating students who are proud and poor by calling them out in any manner on lunch bills their parents haven’t paid is unconscionable.

A national Universal Free Meals program would cost an additional $200 or so per student. Nationwide this would amount to about $13 billion a year, which is less than three-tenths of a percent of the national budget. So why are we fighting about unpaid school lunch bills? No more bureaucracy, no more red tape, no more humiliation, no more food insecurity. Let’s just feed the kids.

KEVIN WELLEN is superintendent of Menahga Public Schools in Menahga, Minn.