Hungry kids can’t learn: More districts are expanding their free lunch programs

by Nathaniel Browning, Policy and Programs Officer

Lunch will now be free for students in the Palm Springs Unified School District who used to receive a reduced lunch price of 40 cents per meal, the board of education recently decided. This will positively impact the achievement of some low-income students whose families still cannot afford the reduced meal prices.  Research has shown that children learn better when they are properly nourished. The change is set to go into effect at the start of the 2014-15 school year and will cost the district about $14,000 monthly, which will be paid by the district’s nutrition fund, separate from general fund dollars.

The intent behind the expansion of the free meals program is to better feed the students of the district. “When students are hungry and distracted, they’re not learning,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “To set kids up for academic success, we must make sure they’re getting the healthy food they need at breakfast and lunch so they can concentrate in the classroom throughout the day.”

Federal guidelines state that families who earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for free meals, and families who make less than 185 percent of the poverty level qualify for reduced pricing. The need for affordable school meals in the district is great: 83 percent of PSUSD students are currently eligible for free or reduced-price meals; of that population, 2,400 students will be affected by this policy change.

The decision to offer greater numbers of free lunches will help ease the stigma of purchasing reduced-price meals and ensure greater numbers of students are properly fed on a consistent basis. The district is projecting a 10-12 percent increase in school lunch participation, which could potentially help PSUSD identify greater numbers of low-income students for the Local Control and Accountability Plan they are now required to adopt.

Districts and states across the nation are starting to contemplate similar policies for their children. This is especially so in the wake of national headlines depicting cafeteria staff trashing the lunches of students whose meal accounts aren’t paid up , school staff and students raising money for others who cannot afford a lunch ticket, and many other students subsisting on plain cheese sandwiches when they do not have the means to buy their lunch.

For the third time, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would expand the offering of free lunches. “We should really be committed to making sure kids don’t go hungry at school,” Franken told the Star Tribune. “It’s just wrong.”

It is currently unclear how much the proposal would cost, or how many students would benefit, but more information will be forthcoming as the bill moves forward.
See more about nutrition issues on the CSBA website.

Related video: Breakfast in the Classroom at Wilkerson Elementary School
Breakfast in the Classroom: YouTube video
Breakfast in the Classroom at Wilkerson Elementary school is a ‘win-win-win’: better attendance leads to academic gains for students and stable funding for districts.



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