Preserve free school meal program


As the Courier-Journal and the Hechinger Report recently detailed, the gap in student achievement between different groups persists and is even widening in Kentucky. That’s why a bill working its way through Congress is troubling.

The CJ/Hechinger project looked mostly at the impact of Kentucky’s adoption of Common Core standards, but experts say many factors come to bear on why some students perform better than others. Solutions must extend beyond the school day to the home and community. For instance, if students are not healthy and well-nourished when they arrive at school, they struggle in the classroom.

One tool that has been helpful in this regard is the free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch program offered to students from low-income families through federal funding. That program became even more effective in 2010 when Congress extended the benefit to cover all students in schools where at least 40 percent of the students qualify.

The logic: the stigma of going to receive a free breakfast or lunch often keeps hungry students from seeking the very meal they so desperately need. If all students are getting fed, the stigma goes away.

Extending eligibility to all students also means that some children who don’t meet the eligibility requirements or can’t document it but who really don’t get good meals at home are also covered. And that’s often the case in schools with large low-income populations that do meet current overall eligibility standards.

In addition, schools save money by reducing administrative costs because they no longer must deal with the red tape of tracking which students are eligible and making sure only eligible students get the benefit.

The nutrition program’s authorization expired in September, so Congress is grappling with how to renew it. Unfortunately U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita thinks the current approach is “perverse” and a “bad social message.” The Indiana Republican is pushing legislation to raise the threshold to 60 percent of students qualifying before a school could extend free breakfast and lunch to all students.

By kicking out of the program an estimated 3.4 million students nationally who attend schools no longer eligible under his higher standard, Rokita figures the federal government will save $1 billion over a decade. To his credit, Rokita does say he wants the savings to be spent on a much-needed increase in the reimbursement for breakfasts served, which hasn’t been raised since the 1980s, and for improving summer meal programs for hungry children.

Rokita’s bill cleared the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last month. A separate bill with different provisions is working its way through the Senate. Now is the time to find a bipartisan solution that renews the program with similar guidelines on eligibility as in the past.

Some of our most challenged schools need to stay focused on getting children the education they deserve and not on administering a program that is but one crucial element of keeping those children ready to learn.

Courier-Journal, Louisville

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