“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
We’ve all heard this saying. Maybe it’s time to make it go away, particularly when it comes to our nation’s federally funded school lunch program.
But first, some history. This information comes from: William Lambers, "Today’s School Feeding Programs Grew Out of the “Penny Lunch” Tradition of a Century Ago," Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective; January, 2012:
“In 1908 a Cincinnati school teacher, Ella Walsh, saw that her students were struggling. They looked pale. The students were not getting enough to eat. This obviously had serious health as well as educational repercussions. They could not learn on an empty stomach.
Walsh could see malnutrition before her eyes. But she did not just “file it and forget it.” She took action. She got some cooking materials together, found a room, arranged a table, and started serving what came to be known as the “penny lunch.”
This was one of the first attempts to provide school feeding for children. When the school superintendent stopped by to see Walsh’s program in action, he called it a major breakthrough in solving the “problem of the underfed child.”
And it caught on. A doctor quoted in the Cincinnati Post said the penny lunch programs were “like the measles: started, you cannot stop them.” Educators around the United States and even other countries started penny lunch programs. During the Great Depression, these meals were an ever-so-vital safety net.
Over the years, these early efforts at school feeding were strengthened and, in 1946, Harry Truman signed into law the National School Lunch program. Upon signing the legislation, Truman said, “No nation is any healthier than its children.”
Today, millions of school children receive free or low-price meals because of this initiative that had its earliest roots in the penny lunch. But just enacting this legislation was not enough. Congress had to make improvements when needed.
In 1968, for instance, Sens. Bob Dole and George McGovern, who had witnessed the effect of child hunger in war-torn Europe, started a committee to bolster the existing national school lunch program so more needy children could take part. Their work added millions of children to a new national breakfast program and expanded summer feeding initiatives.
But despite these efforts, the journey to end child hunger is far from complete. There are still huge gaps in participation in the national school breakfast and summer feeding programs and, when summer comes and schools close, the drop in participation is dramatic.
In 2010, according to Feeding America, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, but just 2.3 million participated in summer feeding. When schools close for the summer, distribution of food becomes a huge problem.
Fixing this problem requires a combination of innovation, like Ella Walsh showed, and government support, as demonstrated by McGovern and Dole.
I haven’t had much reason to think of school lunches lately, but last week, Vermillion Superintendent Damon Alvey, while addressing the Vermillion Rotary Club, noted that during the height of COVID-19, when families nationwide were struggling with the economic impacts brought on by the pandemic, decisions were made at the federal level to simply offer school lunches for free.
That policy is ending. The COVID-era universal free lunch program has expired this academic year, and while free or reduced meals are still available for those who qualify and go through an application process, there are worries that many families who don’t qualify will be facing hard times.
And, as our superintendent noted, there are families across our community, our state and the nation who just barely don’t meet the qualifications for a free and reduced meal program and they’re struggling.
One way to make those worries go away is to permanently continue the universal free lunch program enacted during the pandemic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service.
Pros and cons accompany this idea.
The Heritage Foundation, in a 2019 report, noted that the National School Lunch Program lost $800 million owing to improper payments in fiscal year 2018, while the School Breakfast Program lost $300 million. The Office of Management and Budget calls these programs “high-priority” programs because of the misspending.
According to a Government Accountability Office report at that time, the estimated error rates for 2018 were lower than in prior years because the Department of Agriculture had “changed what it considers to be an improper payment.” As a result, it is impossible to compare the most recent error rates with prior years.
However, let’s briefly examine some of the positive aspects of offering free school meals to every child.
A report from the Noah Webster Educational Foundation finds that:
• Children can’t learn on an empty stomach. A hungry child is a distracted child.
• According to the Food Research & Action Center, “Students who eat do better than students who miss meals. … Students in schools with healthy meals for all fared better on tests than their peers in schools without universal [meals] in a carefully controlled study by the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.”
• Free meals for all students would significantly reduce the likelihood of hungry children laboring through their studies, regardless of the cause of their hunger.
• Free meals for all help to fight childhood hunger. Regardless of the reasons, thousands of children go hungry at school. Ultimately, free school meals for all students would drastically reduce this problem.
We have come a long way from the time when Ella Walsh began offering “penny lunches” to her students.
It’s time to agree that we can do more. We like to brag that our farmers feed the world.
Let’s take that saying a step further and get rid of the “no free lunch” axiom that limits our ambitions.
Let’s feed our students. For free.