At the peak of the COVID pandemic in 2021, the Biden administration championed and passed the American Rescue Plan through Congress. Among other things, one thing the “ARP” funded was free school lunches for every student in America – but only for one year. Over this last year, this program has led to soaring participation in school lunch programs, with particular benefit to kids and families in need. From Burke to Edgecombe to Wake counties and everywhere in between, school officials and families in North Carolina have hailed the free school lunch program as enormously helpful during a period of economic turbulence.
And on June 30th, that program may disappear. This would be a tremendous mistake. North Carolina’s leaders owe it to the children of our state to step in.
Making school lunch free
Funds from the American Rescue Plan were always designed to be temporary and to expire, as they will later this month on June 30th. If no action is taken before then, kids will once again be charged for breakfast and lunch at all public schools. Of the 1.4 million children in North Carolina’s K-12 schools, more than half already receive reduced-cost or free lunches because their families qualify as low-income. (This is a major problem in and of itself.)
The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill to extend the standalone free lunch program further. Senate Democrats, joined by just two Republicans (Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine), have proposed the “Support Kids Not Red Tape” bill to extend the program another two years. Its chances are uncertain.
Fortunately, there is a simple and state-level solution for leaders who don’t feel like waiting for the feds: North Carolina can fund this important program ourselves – and very easily.
Democrats in both the House and Senate of the state legislature have proposed bills that would fully fund free school breakfasts and lunches for every North Carolina K-12 student (see House bill). The costs of these bills is negligible. The legislature’s own Fiscal Research Division has estimated the cost of providing free breakfasts and lunches to every student in the state at just $93 million. That is roughly one-third of 1% of an overall state budget of $27 billion.
Doing nothing will ensure not only that hundreds of thousands of North Carolina’s kids don’t get enough to eat, but also that those who can afford to will pay more. This is because schools are not immune to the supply chain disruptions that have rippled throughout the COVID-era economy, and are facing higher costs for food, transportation and staff across the board. Because budgets are set by statute, many school systems have no choice but to pass on those costs to students and their families.
For North Carolinians already struggling with rising costs of living, this would be incredibly unwelcome news. Making school breakfast and lunch free would make a very real and tangible difference to those families’ costs, particularly for those most in need. Care about the rising cost of living? This is a great way to do something about it.
What was the American Rescue Plan, again?
The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan sent an unprecedented amount of federal stimulus dollars – $1.9 trillion in all – into the American economy when Congress passed it in March 2021. Not a single Republican member of Congress voted in favor of it. The “ARP” funded stimulus checks to nearly every taxpayer, significant subsidies for healthcare premiums, the expanded child tax credits, small business grants, budget assistance for local governments, and much more – like free school lunches for American children (a comparatively small item on the list).
The policy goal of the ARP was to dodge the long and painfully slow economic recovery seen after the Great Recession of 2008/2009. In this, the ARP has clearly been successful. Though the post-COVID economic recovery has been far from perfect (inflation, while now dropping, has spiked), it has been superior and preferable in almost every way to the 2010s recovery. Unemployment is extremely low (it currently stands at just 3.6%), wage growth is high and business investment is strong. While Americans express substantial economic pessimism in the polls, they also generally report that their own personal economic situation is sound.
No place for morality lessons
There are some critics of free school breakfasts/lunches who counter that children must be taught lessons in rugged independence and self-reliance. Not only is it the state’s job to do so, they claim, but denying them food is one way to accomplish that. Some critics even call children too fat to need school lunches at all.
It’s obvious to most of us, though, that denying poor children food in order to “teach them a lesson” is not just deeply cruel on a moral level, but as any parent will tell you, also very unlikely to work. Providing children with proper nutrition is not just a desirable goal itself, but since research tells us that well-nourished children learn best, it is a very effective policy lever to improve education. Expanding free school breakfasts and lunches is a slam-dunk policy idea. Legislative leaders shouldn’t wait on Washington to lead – they should do so themselves.