We live, we learn.
We require food to live; we require school to learn.
We know that we require food to learn, too, but school lunch debt shows a need to better make the grade.
Regional students return to school today; some with their cafeteria trays swept clean of lingering school lunch debt.
The Mitten Brewery company’s nonprofit — called Mitten Foundation, Inc. — donated $2,700 to wipe out the entirety of Suttons Bay’s lunch debt.
We thank them for their generosity, and for bringing the issue forward.
It’s a lot to unpack.
“Lunch” here means school meals before, after and during the bell, plus backpack meals on the weekends. Most schools provide these. Many also have policies to give every kid a hot meal who wants one, regardless of circumstance.
Food programs also incur losses from the outset, as the cost to produce fresh, local, healthy meals often exceeds the charges for them.
Efforts to curb costs or to collect can be shaming to students and parents; see numerous horror stories on the internet.
It’s a pickle.
The School Nutrition Association reported in 2018 that 75 percent of public school districts had unpaid lunch debt at the end of the school year, averaging between $2,000-$2,500.
More keeps getting heaped on that plate — SNA also found that students without adequate funds jumped by 40 percent last school year.
The government defines lunch debt as largely an issue of paperwork — when families in need don’t utilize reimbursement programs. It’s a huge government expense; the USDA spends $13.6 billion on school lunches annually. Programs offer reduced-price meals to families at 185 percent of the poverty level ($46,435 for a family of four) and free meals to those below 130 percent ($32,630 for a family of four).
In 2017, that equated to 30 million lunches per day.
But families see the problem differently.
Many cite misunderstanding bureaucratic instructions and requirements, mistrust of government and shaming as reasons for not doing the paperwork. Many say they can use the help but don’t qualify.
The divide shows a need for innovation — and perhaps modernization.
Friday saw the first batch of results from a pilot program that automatically enrolled children whose families receive Medicaid in free lunch programs. Just like registering to vote when you renew your driver’s license.
Other schools handle all payments online with parents, leaving the children out of the equation. Yes.
Outside organizations also have stepped in, offering farm-to-school programs and healthy food demonstrations in schools. Wonderful.
These positive steps help our children get the most out of their education.
But efforts also need to strengthen the family’s role in providing for its children. We need to take hard looks at the systemic economic challenges facing them.
Schools are taking on more of these parenting responsibilities, but they only catch school-age children. Families are forever.