Are school lunch programs an expendable option for budget cuts or
are they an essential element for educating the next generation?
In 2001, I remarried and moved to Atlanta from Chicago, leaving
my job behind. When I married Steve, our joint family included my
three sons, ages 20, 18 and 12 and his four sons, ages 14, 12, and
6-year-old twins. I spent the first couple of years in Georgia in a
college classroom as I finished up a long-delayed bachelor’s degree.
Holding only my freshly-minted diploma in the summer of 2004, I
hunkered down to the critical task of finding a job.
Those two years when I was in school and not contributing to the
family income were rough, to say the least. Have you ever tried to
feed seven boys? My grocery trips were not pretty sites as I
struggled to feed our growing tribe. Since five of the boys were in
school, we reluctantly turned to the federal lunch program to
supplement our family budget, which was below the poverty line.
To let you know how bad our income was in 2002, the federal
poverty level for a family of nine was $33,500. It took a lot of
stress to make us look to the federal government, but we finally
succumbed with the intent to stop using it as soon as possible. No
one wants to be “beholden” to the government. It’s a demeaning and
frustrating process to apply for food stamps, or welfare, or aid for
dependent children. The government doesn’t make it easy.
And, then there’s the shame factor. Our three high schoolers were
ashamed of the fact that they had a different lunch card than the
other “paying” students. We had our students on this program for a
year, until I found a job, but it was a tough year for us.
What happened to us in 2002 has now spread across the country. A
recent Associated Press headline reported that 60 percent of Georgia
public school kids receive the free or reduced-price federal lunch
program. “An additional 47,000 students have enrolled in the
past five years…”
This is the tip of the iceberg of pressure being applied to those
least able to afford it, the children of America. My sister was a
principal in an inner city elementary in the industrial north and of
the 600 plus children enrolled in her school 92 percent of them were
on the free- or reduced- lunch program. A few of her kids were
living in homeless shelters and coming to school.
Nationally, there are a lot of children helped by this program.
According to figures issued by the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, “In 2004, the National School
Lunch Program (NSLP) served an average of 29 million lunches daily,
at a Federal cost of $7.6 billion.”
The USDA’s recent research revealed the characteristics of the
typical child helped by the school lunch program:
Recipients are evenly divided among White, African-American
Two-thirds of the children participating are from
The biggest concentration of use was with children aged
Many of the children enrolled at school were also
participants in the Food Stamp program.
Since we’re in a federal fiscal crisis many in Congress are now
looking at ways to cut budgets. There have been presidential
candidates who’ve advocated cutting the food stamp program, for
example. Many people mistakenly feel that there is rampant fraud in
the food stamp and school lunch programs, however, both of these are
“To ensure that benefits are provided only to
eligible households and in the proper amounts, SNAP has one of the
most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program
and, in recent years, has achieved its lowest error rates on record.
In fiscal year 2009, even as caseloads were rising, states set new
record lows for error rates. The net loss due to errors equaled only
2.7 percent of program costs in 2009. There is no evidence that
program errors are driving up SNAP spending.”
The school lunch program began in 1946 during the Truman
administration to increase national security. He realized this after
many young men were rejected during the World War II draft because
of issues related to childhood malnutrition. The program was
extended by President Lyndon Johnson when he began having schools
also offer a breakfast for needy school children. Like many people
Johnson believed that school performance was directly related to a
good breakfast. Since there was such a need for a meals program
during the school year, a summer meals program began to be offered
to low-income children beginning in 1968. Even if a child is not
enrolled in summer school, the summer meals are available to them.
One of the issues we still need to resolve is the stigma
children, especially older teens, feel when they need to depend upon
the school lunch program. This program, like many in the schools, is
on the front lines as America struggles to control childhood
Luanne Rohde, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin, has
served in schools where 92 percent of the student body was enrolled
in the lunch program.
“I served in inner city schools where some of the
population was homeless and living in shelters. Without the ability
to provide healthy meals and snacks for my students learning was
much more difficult. In order to learn students’ basic needs must be
met. Being hungry is a basic need that is not being met. Children
who are struggling with homelessness, poverty and other issues have
less energy to concentrate on school. I’m glad I have the chance to
provide my students with a healthy breakfast and lunch while they’re