More than four out of five of the 24,000 students who attend the Public Schools of Robeson County were already receiving a free or reduced-cost lunch, but beginning with the next school year, almost all of the students will eat for free.
And while we believe that handouts have fostered government dependence in this county that has led to much of what plagues us, primarily high unemployment and pervasive poverty, in this instance we believe it provides a layer of protection for a vulnerable demographic — young people dealing with the peer pressure that is rampant in our classrooms.
The exception to the free lunch will be the Robeson Early College High School, which is not eligible for the Community Eligibility Provision National School Lunch Program. But the remainder of the school system’s 42 schools will be serving free lunches to all their students, even if they come from wealthy families.
The system’s administrators like the program because it will recapture about $400,000 a year in lost revenue — meals served that were not reimbursed. It also does away with a lot of paperwork, and the invitation that fraudulent forms be submitted.
The program is abundantly fair, eliminating an arbitrary line that previously distinguished who pays the full price, who pays a reduced price and who doesn’t pay at all.
These are strong reasons to like the program, which will make more of a ripple than a wave as it only affects about 17 percent of the students who were paying full price for their meals. But we like it for another reason, which is less obvious but of more significance.
It is difficult for some children to navigate their way through the public school system where so many social pressures stack up against them, and we aren’t talking only of acne, braces or hand-me-down clothes. Cliques easily form, separating the “cool” students from the rest, and too often these cliques are based on socio-economic status.
Kids can be cruel — and it’s easy to undersell the enduring damage that can be done to those who are targeted.
With the advent of this lunch program, there will be one less reason for 83 percent of the students in our school system to be embarrassed through no fault of their own by receiving a meal either for free or at a reduced cost. While the school system makes efforts to conceal who pays and who doesn’t, the system isn’t full proof.
We think more efforts should be made to gather all our students on the same stage, and that would include putting them in uniforms, the wisdom of which we hope our school board eventually discovers. Providing all our students with a free meal is a good step towards knocking down artificial fences that divide them.
Our local school officials deserve credit for discovering the program and bringing it here.