The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. could offer free meals to all students. Every city should.

As the federal government cuts pandemic-era benefits, advocates warn that millions face a looming “hunger cliff.”

Lunch at an elementary school in Florida. (Eve Edelheit/For The Washington Post)
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Velle Perkins faced a no-win choice on Tuesday: She could get the brakes repaired on her car, or she could save that money for groceries.

She picked the brakes.

“They were screaming,” she said. “And I knew I couldn’t drive like that.”

She also knew that by spending about $350 on the repairs, she’d have to find another way to buy food for her family.

The careful math of the working poor is something Perkins understands well. The 49-year-old works as an administrative assistant at a D.C. college. But her paycheck only stretches so far, so she often has to make no-win choices.

“Every bill you pay, you’re thinking, ‘How much are you going to pinch off to go to the grocery store?’” she said. That might mean not paying her full electric bill some months, or trying to get by with the bare minimum amount of gas in her car some weeks, she said. “My son is diabetic and I’m prediabetic, so we have to eat well, and sometimes we can’t do that, because the unhealthy food is the cheaper food. You have to make those choices.”

It’s not easy for many people to admit they face food insecurities. But Perkins agreed to talk openly about her situation because she believes people should know how far and deep the issue stretches. “My mom told me when I was coming up, ‘A closed mouth don’t get fed,’” she told me on a recent night.

“I remember when I was growing up and experiencing hunger and trying to figure out how I was going to get something to eat,” she said. “It was really hard. And you don’t want your kids to experience that.”

D.C. Council to consider new free proposal: School lunch

Before D.C. lawmakers is a proposal that calls for providing free meals to every public school student regardless of income. The measure would restore a practice the federal government put in place for students across the country during the pandemic — then took away in September.

In 2021, I wrote a column that lauded the federal initiative as “arguably the best thing to come of the pandemic.”

“Students who have long qualified for free meals, students who have barely missed the cutoff for free meals and students whose families, on paper, don’t need help feeding them, can all now count on getting fed at school if they want,” I wrote. “There’s no calculating how far below or above they sit from the poverty line. There’s no waiting on parents to fill out a complicated form that asks detailed information about their family’s circumstances.”

“The pandemic will (hopefully) eventually end,” I wrote. “Making sure students, all students, are fed shouldn’t.”

Maybe the best thing to come of the pandemic: Free lunch for all in schools

I stand by that. A form, which is what parents at many schools now have to fill out if they want their children to receive free meals, can’t capture what goes on in a child’s home. It can’t tell you whether they showed up to school hungry that day because their parents, who on paper appear to make enough to feed them, weren’t able to buy eggs or cereal because they were struggling with depression, addiction or finances. Likewise, the absence of a form doesn’t mean a child’s belly is full. Maybe a parent’s pride kept them from turning it in, or maybe a parent is an undocumented immigrant who fears filling it out.

The D.C. proposal, which was introduced by council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) and seven other lawmakers, is expected to cost the city $8 million a year if approved. The city’s current annual budget is $19.5 billion.

That’s a small amount to spend to meet an essential need of the city’s children, especially when we consider the steep cost of childhood hunger, which includes increased health, behavioral and academic issues.

Anti-hunger advocates have warned that millions of people across the country face a looming “hunger cliff.” The universal lunch program was not the only pandemic-era assistance that families came to depend on — then watched lawmakers take away. Soon, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program will see their benefits noticeably drop. A temporary increase that the federal government put in place to help families during the pandemic will end for most recipients come March. For families, that will mean losing on average $82 per person a month.

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When we consider what families are facing, this becomes clear: D.C. should offer universal free meals. Every city should.

Congress needs to do more to help families who are living below the poverty line or limping above it, especially since food costs are rising. But until they do, every city or state should put in place protections to make sure children don’t go hungry. Offering universal meal programs for students is one of the simplest ways to do that.

Colorado, California and Maine have already taken that action. In states that haven’t, schools have seen student meal debts rising, according to the Food Research and Action Center, which has been calling on federal and local lawmakers to address the hunger crisis.

“Households have been struggling,” Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research and Action Center, said. “We can’t just pull the rug out from under them.”

Perkins, who has four sons, two of whom are young enough to live with her, has applied for SNAP. She previously qualified for that assistance and found it vital to helping her put food on the table. If she is approved this time, she will receive significantly less in benefits, a reality that has left her worried for her family and for other families.

She sometimes visits a food pantry in her building in Northwest Washington to supplement her family’s groceries. She also collects food for neighbors and, through a volunteer role, distributes food at work to colleagues who need it. When they have been too embarrassed to come inside her office to grab a bag, she has taken the food outside to them.

“If you don’t have food, you don’t have anything,” she said. “Hunger is one of the most crippling, unfortunate and devastating feelings in the world. When they’re cutting benefits, they’re also cutting families. We’re going to feel it — mentally emotionally, financially.”

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Leaving people hungry is going to cause people to experience more health issues, more crime, more domestic violence, she said.

It’s going to force people to make more no-win choices.

Perkins said sometimes she has to choose between taking lunch to work and leaving that food at home to make sure her sons have enough to eat for dinner.

“How productive do you think I’m going to be at work that day?” she said. And what if someone in that situation gets confronted by a boss? she asked. “Look at how that trickles down, how it can really strip you from feeling like a productive adult. And you’re trying. You’re trying every day.”