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Free lunch act is a good thing

by By Maylon Rice | September 13, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.

Finally, some Republican lawmakers saw and fixed (even temporarily) the outright ridiculousness of the age-old myth of "reduced lunch fees" for Arkansas school children.

And rather quietly and effectively, this larger collation of lawmakers, led by State Senator Jonathan Disman, R-Beebe, deserves a big portion of the credit for convincing their colleagues, especially the "hard" right wing of the state's powerful Republican Party, for seeing the need for this bill -- Act 656 of 2023.

Dismang and others like State Rep. Charlene Fite, State Senator Bryan King, and even Democratic State Rep. David Whitaker, are in this food coalition from Northwest Arkansas, making this legislation a reality.

Fite, who has been at the forefront of many school initiatives, said:

"I voted for it because learning doesn't happen when a child is hungry. Making sure children have nutritious meals is one of the best investments we can make in the future of our state," she said.

"We may not be able to eliminate all the barriers our children face, but we can at least ensure that hunger isn't one of them."

Act 656 will ease the expenses for thousands of Arkansas public school families whose children are eligible for what is commonly called "reduced price school meals."

In truth, if a family is filling out the income forms to see if they are entitled to free breakfast and lunch programs administered by the school district, they already know their family is needing the help to make that thin household budget come up with lunch money on a consistent basis.

Going to school hungry is the No. 1 deterrent to learning, says more than one dozen experts on education.

I can recall, now more than 50 years ago, there was no reduced or free lunch program in my southeast Arkansas hometown.

A group of my peers were dismissed from class just ahead of the lunch bell each day. They magically appeared behind the lunch serving counter, dipping out the white beans, creamed corn, and fish sticks for the rest of us passing down the stainless-steel tables with our plastic trays.

Another set of older kids was back behind the lunch line, dumping the refuse of our trays into large steel barrels. A local hog farmer had bid and was paying the school district to gather these food scraps to feed his hogs.

My mom, a widowed LPN nurse, scrabbled about many Monday mornings throughout the school year, putting her leftover nickels, dimes and yes, even spare pennies towards the weekly $2.50 required for five lunches for my brother and me.

If there was a poverty level back then, I am sure we would have qualified for the free lunch program.

For Arkansas families to be forced to pay a fraction of the cost set by the government, whether breakfast or lunch, is significant. About 40 percent of elementary school children across the state are in single-family homes at the poverty level.

Now multiply that "reduced cost," by two, three or four children in that same single-family household for a single parent to worry and fret for that "reduced" price tag each day.

A typical school lunch in Arkansas public schools is hovering around $2.85, after the federal guidelines, reimbursements and cost-saving measures are enacted.

There are about 46,000 of the 477,000 students in the state's public schools eligible for a "reduced" price on a school breakfast or lunch. That "reduction" still has parents coming up with between 30 cents for a $1.85 breakfast and 40 cents on a $2.85 lunch each school day -- all out of their own pockets.

Now multiply those reductions times two, three or four kids per day just for lunch and breakfast.

This revamping of the Arkansas Public Schools Lunch Program under Act 657 of 2023 is not the only such program today across our nation. Schools in California, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Vermont, have done similar programs -- some eliminating the entire breakfast and lunch fee programs -- making all the school breakfasts and lunches free to all the children.

Maybe Arkansas can still do better? Don't you think?

It is all about feeding hungry kids to do better at school.

Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at maylon[email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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