So far I’ve covered how a child would qualify for a free or reduced price meal, that kids that don’t qualify for either are the kids impacted by meal charge policies and the federal requirements for making such a policy publicly known. I’ve also shared the repercussions that can come from making that policy public.
On the school meal side, I’ve covered how cash strapped school meal program are and how they rely on the money collected from meals served to kids that don’t qualify for a free or reduced price meal that comes with a more substantial federal reimbursement. School meal programs just don’t have the budgets that allow for serving meals that aren’t either reimbursed by the federal government or paid for by students who don’t qualify for the federal reimbursement.
I also know from my time spent working in school nutrition that nobody wants to take a meal away from a hungry child or deny a kid a meal that needs it. Which puts school nutrition professionals squarely between a rock and hard place.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to try to get closer to a comfortable middle ground between kids getting fed and school nutrition programs staying afloat:
- Wherever possible, explore the possibilities of special provisions. USDA has given school districts lots of flexibility on how they can put a special provision in place and some districts have implemented a special provision across the entire district which allows every kid to eat for no charge. This decreases the stigma associated with eating a school meal, boosts participation and decreases the administrative burden of processing applications.
- Make applying for meal benefits as easy as possible and start early in the school year. Online applications that are simple and intuitive to fill out can be a huge asset. Consider talking about school meal benefit applications at back to school open housings or enrollment sessions. Being able to review an application on the spot and get any additional information needed right away can be a help in getting applications approved correctly and quickly.
- If a school allows meal charges, be proactive in contacting families who have accrued a negative balance. Accruing a small meal charge is understandable and provides a great opportunity for a school administrator to contact a parent or guardian and find out if there have been any changes at home and if there is any help that can be provided. People’s lives change, financial circumstances change and all it takes is a caring adult to help connect someone with resources who may be struggling.
- I don’t support unlimited meal charging. It puts a tremendous burden on school meal programs that are already under resourced and sets a system up to get taken advantage of. Some amount of meal charging I think is reasonable, but if there is no limit it just seems to set the school lunch system up to fail. Balances go unchecked and putative actions like sending families to collections will only build animosity between parents and schools.
Ultimately, I would love to see school meals free for all kids, at every school. It would take away the stigma, it would decrease the administrative burden of taking meal applications and I think if a truly accurate cost analysis was done, it wouldn’t cost more than what we currently spend. We spend an incredible amount of time collecting meal benefit applications, reviewing meal benefit applications, reporting on meal benefit applications and then auditing meal benefit applications. But in our current political environment, I just don’t see that coming together. So in the meantime, I encourage everyone involved to focus on the opportunity this challenge brings to keep working together to do the best we can for kids.