Lunch debt mounts as lawmakers consider making school lunch free

During the past two years, those meals have been free for everyone. That has now changed, and schools are left to pick up the tab once again.
Published: Apr. 4, 2023 at 11:45 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 6, 2023 at 7:54 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - For millions of children across the country, schools are the only place where they can consistently rely on a nutritious meal for lunch and, in some places, breakfast as well.

During the past two years, those meals have been free for everyone. That has now changed, and schools are left to pick up the tab once again.

Brittany Singleton is the mother of two students in the Charleston County School District. She says free school lunch has been a major convenience for her busy family.

“Really, it’s a relief for me to know that I can bring my children to school every day and know they’re going to have a hot meal when they come in,” Singleton said.

Singleton has a ninth-grade student at West Ashley High School and a first-grade student at Stono Park Elementary. Stono Park is one of nearly half of CCSD’s schools that still offers students free lunch regardless of income through the Community Eligibility Provision or CEP program.

But for the other half of schools, parents still must fill out complicated applications to try and qualify for a free or reduced lunch, something busy parents may not be aware of or think they don’t qualify for. Singleton says every child should be able to eat for free.

“I think that there’s a misconception that either you don’t have any income or you’re going to be able to afford everything. And I think that there are a lot of parents that maybe don’t qualify for EBT or SNAP and won’t qualify for free or reduced lunch,” Singleton said. “Finances are still tight for them. When we look at the big picture - the cost of rent, interest rates – there are a lot of other factors that go into affordability.”

Now there’s an effort to ditch the application and make free school lunch as universal and essential as a reading class.

“Despite them not, possibly, having parents that care, they still have a job to do when they come to school and that’s to learn,” said State Senator Stephen Goldfinch. “It’s not the kids’ fault that they don’t have money to buy lunch or dinner or breakfast for that matter.”

Goldfinch is a Republican from Myrtle Beach and is part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have introduced a bill in the state legislature to provide the funding to get free meals for students.

“If we’re going to demand learning and education out of them, then we probably need to be supplying them with all the resources they need to be successful,” Goldfinch said.

State economists estimate the financial impact of the bill would cost more than $150 million. While that’s a massive cost, we have already seen that it can be done.

During the pandemic, Congress authorized the United States Department of Agriculture to fund free school lunches for every student in the nation. Goldfinch says it’s a matter of priorities. He points to the decision by lawmakers to give Scout Motors a $1.3 billion incentive package to draw the company to South Carolina.

“If we’re willing to give $1.3 billion in South Carolina to the seventh largest corporation in the world, we should be able to give a little bit of money so kids in our schools can eat,” Goldfinch said. “I don’t suspect the economist is right. I suspect it’s probably closer to half, honestly, maybe even less.”

The bill would have another profound effect, putting an end to the huge amount of student lunch debt absorbed by school districts every year.

“We send out a call every Wednesday and Sunday night to parents to let them know there’s a balance in their child’s account,” Walter Campbell, Executive Director of Nutrition Services for CCSD, said.

Despite conventional wisdom, Campbell says lunch is the most important meal of the day for many of these students.

“They can’t learn in school if they don’t eat. They can’t concentrate. It’s been proven that way,” Campbell. “If they get a nice nutritious meal that they bring from home or we provide them, they’re much better off.”

Since the federal government’s free lunch for all waivers ended at the beginning of the academic year, school lunch debt has returned.

According to a school board presentation, from 2009 to 2020 the Charleston County School District has had to absorb $1.7 million in unpaid school lunch debt.

This year alone, CCSD has almost $120,000 in student lunch debt. The numbers are similar for the Berkeley County School District at $109,000. In Dorchester District 2, students have racked up around $90,000 in student lunch debt.

“This year if it continues tracking like this, it will be the highest it has been in 10 years,” Campbell said. “It impacts our budget, but we are doing everything we can to make sure we mitigate that.”

Instead of paying off debt, that money could be going back to the classroom where a well-fed kid is ready to learn, unburdened by the hunger that grips more than 9 million children across the country.

In Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester District 2, students who don’t have money still get a meal and, unlike in other places, it’s the same meal a student with money would get.

With little time left in the legislative session, Goldfinch’s bill likely won’t pass this year, but he says he’ll bring it back again next year.