Editorials, Opinion

It’s only right for all kids to get free meals

As horrible and horrifying as this pandemic has been, there have been a few silver linings. One of them is that Monongalia County Schools, for the first time, is able to offer free breakfasts and lunches to all students thanks to a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA began granting waivers to all counties across the nation last year as part of ensuring kids had reliable access to food throughout the pandemic. Since we’re still in the thick of it, the waiver was offered again for this school year. Where the program will go from here, no one knows, Brian Kiehl told one member of the Editorial Board, but from now until June 2022, kids attending school are guaranteed two meals a day if they want them.

Keihl is the nutrition director of Monongalia County Schools and was kind enough to offer some additional information about the free meals. Under normal circumstances, if a county has more than 50% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, the county is given permission to offer free meals to all students. In Mon County, an average of 32% of students qualify for free/reduced meals, though the school-by-school stats range from 51% to 16%; it was only because of the pandemic that Mon County has the opportunity to offer free food to all students.

We fully support this initiative, and we’d like to see it continued in the future.

Mon County has put an end to “lunch shaming” practices — all students have access to the same meals, no matter what — but you may have heard horror stories from other states. Lunch shaming is when a child is singled out for having unpaid lunch debt. It’s taken the form of giving a child an alternate lunch (like a peanut butter or cheese sandwich), throwing out a kid’s hot lunch after discovering the outstanding balance, denying the child any food at all or even making the indebted student do “chores,” like washing down tables, to earn their meal.

It’s unfair — and morally questionable — to punish a child for an adult’s inability to pay.

Even without lunch shaming, free and reduced lunches can still single students out. There continues to be a stigma around being poor — whether you experience chronic poverty or temporary financial hardship. And we know the pandemic has caused sudden and unexpected — and hopefully only fleeting — hardship for many families. It can be embarrassing as a kid to have to take that form home or back to school and hand it over to the teacher. And there always exists the possibility that a child who qualifies still won’t get the free meals: if the parent refuses to sign the waiver, if the child is too ashamed to even get in the lunch line or a dozen other “ifs.”

Free lunch for everyone removes the stigma, bypasses pride and ensures that every child has the opportunity to leave school with a full belly — and that’s how it should be.