Last year, the Frankfort Independent school system prudently rejected a government program that subsidizes free lunch and breakfast for all students, not just the poverty-stricken. The city school board opted out after learning universal free meals at Second Street School would have cost city taxpayers $2,500 a month.
This year there’s apparently been a change of heart. Students returning to Second Street for the new school year last week were invited to gather around the table without charge whether they officially qualified for free and reduced-priced meals or not. The system’s extra cost is expected to reach about $5,000 a year.
This new way of doing business results from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010. The no-pay option applies to schools where at least 40 percent of the student body is on public assistance. The number tops 53 percent at Second Street.
Part of the philosophy is to spare poor children the embarrassment of having to sign up for free meals. Now the humble and the affluent all get the same treatment, which seems to be the trend in federal programs. Government aid to college students has gradually expanded to assist many from relatively prosperous families – who may need a hand because tuition and other costs are rising exponentially. States are mulling over whether to participate in the Medicaid expansion offered under the Affordable Care Act. Medicaid – established to help poor people pay for health care – would grow under the new law to cover those earning up to 133 percent of poverty-level income. As one of the nation’s poorest states, Kentucky stands to benefit, but joining the program won’t be an easy decision politically because the commonwealth has previously struggled to balance even a smaller Medicaid budget.
All of these programs address real needs. Lots of people who once thought they were fairly well off have taken a step down the ladder since the Great Recession struck in 2007. Maybe they aren’t officially “poor,” under the law, but they’re having a hard time making ends meet, nonetheless. Some no doubt will be happy to have little Johnny take breakfast and lunch at the school cafeteria.
But the old maxim, “There’s no free lunch,” still holds. City taxpayers will get the bill for the local portion of this new social service, including parents whose children attend schools where only their poverty-level classmates eat for free.
The government is also forcing up the price of meals served to paying students. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported Monday that many public school districts across Kentucky are having to raise fees this year because the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids law also mandates more wholesome – and costlier – food in school lunches. The rule is that families paying their own way must remit enough to offset the government reimbursement schools receive for free and reduced-priced lunches.
Not everyone’s convinced the “health” food measures up. Kim Wallis told The State Journal’s Katheran Wasson her daughter will forgo Second Street’s free meals and continue carrying a sack lunch from home. She said her homemade food is more healthful and, besides, taxpayers shouldn’t have to absorb the extra expense of universal free meals.
Childhood nutrition has always been a basic parental responsibility, which even the impoverished met at great personal sacrifice, if need be. Government should encourage families to rise to this once-respected responsibility, not shirk it.