Food for thought

First Posted: 4/9/2014

Currently, just short of 84 percent of the students enrolled in the Public Schools of Robeson County receive their school meals either for free or at a reduced charge. The Board of Education was told this week that essentially all of the system’s 24,000 students might could eat for free — even the children of parents who have no trouble paying for the meals.

The federal school meal program, the school board learned Tuesday, has a provision that districts in which 40 percent of the students eat free meals can qualify to have all them eat at no charge. All of this county’s schools except the Early College at Robeson Community College, where meals are catered, could benefit from the program.

The school board, probably wondering if this were too good to be true, didn’t spring into action, but wants to hear more at its May meeting, when Erica Setzer, the system’s chief financial officer, is expected to explain in more detail potential savings for the school system and benefits for the students.

No sane adult stands in opposition to the free and reduced lunch program. A child with a growling tummy is going to be lethargic and not in a position to succeed in school, so it’s important for the schools to provide nutrition to children who can’t get it elsewhere.

Unfortunately, in our county, among the poorest in the state, there are plenty of children, almost 20,000, qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program. But why does it make sense that the other 16 percent of the students also get a free meal?

The provision is based on the notion that it might be cheaper to feed all of the students at no charge than to identify those who qualify for the free and reduced meals. Each year, the school system has to hire temporary staff who spend months trying to identify students who qualify for free and reduced lunches, so that expense would be eliminated.

We are also told that it’s common that students who are supposed to pay for their meals don’t have the money to do so, so that money goes uncollected, which is another expense for the local system. If all the students were provided free meals, then the system would be reimbursed at a 100 percent rate by the federal government.

Additionally, the students would be spared the application process, which some find embarrassing.

Schools Superintendent Johnny Hunt suggested to school board members that the program could be transformative in this county.

“I can’t begin to tell you the ramifications that would have on our school system,” Hunt said. “Just the logistics alone. When we get more information, maybe we can move forward. If there are no catches, I’d recommend we move forward with it.”

We can’t imagine that that the school board will do anything other than apply for the benefit. It appears to be a fairly large windfall not only for the students and their parents, but for the Public Schools of Robeson County.