There’s no such thing as a free lunch, so should we make little Johnny work for his free meal at school? Even if he misses class?
“I think it would be a good idea if perhaps we had the kids work for their lunches: trash to be taken out, hallways to be swept, lawns to be mowed, make them earn it,” said Ray Canterbury, a Republican from Greenbrier and a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, during debate over Senate Bill 663, also known as the Feed to Achieve Act.
The bill — the first of its kind in the nation — would create a partnership between private donations and public funds to make breakfast and lunch available for free to every student, kindergarten through high school senior, in West Virginia. It’s based on a model program in Mason County that’s improved attendance and decreased discipline problems, according to the school district’s food service director.
Free meals are provided through the National School Lunch Program to students whose family’s income is 130 percent or less of the federal poverty guidelines. For this past school year, that means a family of four with an annual income of $29,965 qualifies. Children with household incomes of 185 percent or less of the poverty guidelines can get reduced-price meals under the program, which — I was surprised to learn — was established in 1946 by the National School Lunch Act.
West Virginia’s Feed to Achieve Act wants to go beyond that by making sure no child goes hungry at school, but Canterbury repeated the theme of “there is no such thing as a free lunch” during the delegates’ discussion of the bill, which had passed the state Senate unanimously.
“If they [students] miss a lunch or they miss a meal they might not, in that class that afternoon, learn to add, they may not learn to diagram a sentence, but they’ll learn a more important lesson,” Canterbury explained. (Note to Canterbury: As a parent, I can tell you that they’re not teaching kids how to diagram sentences in many schools these days.)
He said his parents taught him not to expect handouts and to work hard, according to the State Journal. “I think what we’re doing is undermining work ethic and teaching students they don’t have to work hard,” he said.
Among the delegates making passionate rebuttals during the two-hour discussion was Meshea Poore, a Democrat from Kanawha. “I’m offended that anybody in this body would dare say that a child has to work for their meal,” she said. “If they can’t afford it, tell them to pick up some trash? Tell them to wipe down the chalk board? I cannot believe that anybody in this body would say a first-grader, a second-grader, a third-grader, a fourth-grader, a fifth-grader has to labor before they can eat.”
“It is pathetic that in a country as wealthy as this, that we’re talking about whether we should feed kids or not,” House Majority Leader Brent Boggs (D) said. “Somebody better check your pulse and see if you’re still living if these things don’t touch you.”
The bill passed the House of Delegates with bipartisan support 89 to 9 and is expected to be signed into law by the governor before the end of April.
It’s gotten national attention — not just for Canterbury’s remarks — but because of its goal to use private donations and federal funds in an expanded program to feed schoolchildren. The first step is the establishment of county foundations for collecting private donations to help pay for meal programs and improve the quality of what’s offered.
Because too few students make it to school in time to take advantage of the free or reduced-price breakfast available through the National School Lunch Program, the bill seeks to find ways to increase participation. Suggestions include eating breakfast in class (wonder how teachers feel about that one?) or “grab and go” breakfasts.
It doesn’t take an expert to say kids don’t learn when they’re hungry. Any mom can tell you hungry kids are more likely to misbehave and they’re certainly not receptive to doing long division or memorizing the parts of speech.
The bill sounds like a good idea: We’re talking about kids. They’re hungry. Let’s feed them. And while we’re at it, let’s consider the question asked by John McCuskey, a Republican from Kanawha: “What have we done to get their parents out of poverty?”
Maybe that ought to be the next step.
Diana Reese is a journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.