Two new state laws revolving around school meals bring up larger questions about the role of government.
One law, known as Breakfast After the Bell, will require high-poverty schools to provide meals for children who arrive late for school. As Principal Matthew Fechter of Fruit Valley Community Learning Center told The Columbian, staff members at his school greet students with “Good morning” and “Did you get something to eat?” If not, the student is taken to the cafeteria for a quick bite. House Bill 1508, sponsored by Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, will take effect next school year and will extend that policy to schools throughout the state.
Meanwhile, House Bill 2610 will prevent school staff from singling out students who are unable to pay for meals. No employee may “take any action that would publicly identify a student who cannot pay for a school meal or for meals previously served to the student, including but not limited to requiring the student to wear a wristband, hand stamp, or other identifying marker, or by serving the student an alternative meal.” It is common for schools to serve less-expensive meals when a student’s lunch account is depleted, and to provide a reminder.
In helping to ensure that students are well-fed and are in optimal condition for school, the bills will work to enhance learning. As Gov. Jay Inslee said last week during a visit to Fruit Valley, “if you’re going to fill a child’s head, first thing, you can’t have an empty tummy.”
Adequate nutrition for students provides benefits for teachers and administrators, as well. Sibylle Kranz, a University of Virginia professor and child nutrition epidemiologist, says: “There is pretty solid evidence that children who are hungry are not able to focus, so they have a low attention span, behavioral issues, discipline issues in the school. So having children who are well-fed and not hungry makes a difference in their individual performance and also how much they are contributing or disrupting the classroom situation.”
Yet while there are clear benefits to having well-fed students, there are considerable questions about who should provide nutritious meals. Critics say there is no such thing as a free lunch, and parents — rather than taxpayers — should be responsible for providing students with food or money to purchase meals.
Republicans in Congress have sought to scale back the number of students receiving federally funded meals, and Julie Gunlock, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, distilled the argument: “Studies show that a diminished parental role in a child’s nutritional development has real consequences. And that’s exactly what happens when government takes on the role of primary food-provider for school-age children.”
The issue is worthy of debate. There are legitimate questions and legitimate doubts about a society that comes to rely upon government programs for basic necessities.
But the thought of a child going hungry at school — and being ill-prepared to learn — should outweigh concerns about a coddling nanny state. School-provided meals are beneficial for students, and having well-fed, attentive learners make it easier for teachers and administrators to do their jobs.
Parents entrust their children to schools for some seven hours a day. It is perfectly reasonable that we expect schools to ensure that all of students’ needs are met during that time.