When President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, he joked that if he hadn't been able to get the bill passed, he would be "sleeping on the couch."
As part of the act, which was a centerpiece of Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started experimenting with universal free breakfasts and lunches for school food programs across the country.
Now Boston public schools are set to serve free meals, both lunch and breakfast, to all students regardless of their income status this year. The promising meal program, dubbed the "Community Eligibility Option," is currently available in 10 states and the District of Columbia and will make it easier for students from low-income families to receive free meals by eliminating the need to fill out paperwork and pointed questions about family income.
"Every child has a right to healthy, nutritious meals in school, and when we saw a chance to offer these healthy meals at no cost to them, we jumped at the chance," said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "This takes the burden of proof off our low-income families and allows all children, regardless of income, to know healthy meals are waiting for them at school every day."
To participate in the program, however, a certain percentage of students in a district must qualify for free meals — a standard developed through a complex formula which includes multiple factors including percentage of families in a given community who receive food stamps.
But does the program serve as a basic right entitled to every student or simply frivolous government spending?
Although the program is just starting out, the basic idea of making school meals universally available and free for all serves more than just a moral purpose; it is a smart, necessary long-term investment in education, and one the government should be spending on.
To start with, the HHFK bill provides $4.5 billion to schools over the next decade while setting standards for food served in school cafeterias, vending machines, and stores. It also reimburses schools an additional six cents per lunch to help provide healthier options for kids. Oh, and the bill is fully paid for and won't add more to the deficit.
Compared to the price tags of the financial bailout of 2008, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even the astronomical defense budget, the cost of free universal meals for school children seems minuscule. Adding in the fact that the U.S. could potentially save billions of public health dollars and improve the quality of life by serving nutritious meals to children across the nation each year, it's clear that program has enormous potential long-term benefits.
Some might question why the program should apply to students who can afford a decent meal. The rejoinder: the process of establishing eligibility is cumbersome and expensive, not just for schools but students as well. According to 2010 USDA study, more than a third of children denied certification for free or reduced price meals were denied in error.
There is also a stigma attached to free meals, leading some families to avoid applying and some students eating meals for which they qualify. Some parents fail to fill out the necessary application for other reasons as well such as the forms being printed in a language they can't read, or the forms get lost in the paperwork that a student may bring home from school.
When Janet Poppendieck was doing research for her book, Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, she asked food service providers whether given the choice they would prefer a 50 cent increase per meal to do their jobs or the ability to provide free meals to every child without an increase. They unanimously chose the second option.
A program that can feed a student not one but two healthy, nutritious meals a day, regardless of income, should be a priority investment for this country and one that other school districts look into in the coming years.
Last year, almost three-quarters of Boston’s 57,000 students last year qualified for a free or reduced-price lunch. The new program, however, would save families an additional $405 to $455 per child per year. Even though the the district will not collect money from students at cash registers, total meal expenditures are expected to increase by approximately $2.7 million a year due to federal meal reimbursements under the meal program.
There is certainly a lot more to be done in food and health education. This universal free-meal program, however, is an important step in the right direction when it comes to investing in this country's education and combating the current obesity and hunger crisis.
As BPS Interim Superintendent John McDonough said, "Children can focus on learning when they are well-fed, and families can focus on education when they don’t have to budget for school meals every week."