A week or so ago I attended our local school board meeting. I spoke during public comment that I thought we should reconsider charging our children for food. Our children are under the care of the school and should be taken care of in a holistic manner.
Our schools know this. Our local and federal governments know this. Our parents know this. The problems associated with charging for food spawn so many programs, committees, funds, etc. it is hard to keep track. We have programs made to offer free or reduced lunches for our students. Efforts are made to offer healthy snacks at no cost. This is done by teachers, the school, federal government and state, and the PTA/PTO. Generous people across the country learn of school lunch debt and pay it off – creating headlines. These are wonderful expressions of generosity but highlight a ridiculous problem that exists everywhere – even in affluent areas such as Portsmouth, NH. Many people may be surprised to learn that approximately 1/3 of students at New Franklin School in Portsmouth utilize the free/reduced lunch program.
Significant paperwork, fundraising, bureaucracy, emotional toll, stigma, social anxiety, hunger, and distraction exist simply because we have a system in which we offer lunches at a cost that not all families can afford to pay. The wasted time and attention is an unneeded distraction for our schools primary goals. Our children suffer for it.
In my very short public opinion at the school board meeting I said there was inherent conflict in our current system. What I meant is that we have a system intended not just to educate but to enrich every child’s life. Virtually all of that is paid for indirectly via tax dollars – not directly by parents/child. We don’t charge for books, band-aids, counseling, speech therapy, vision screenings, playground use, etc. We shouldn’t. But we do charge our children and their families for something every child must have every single day. This exception to the system (charging for food) creates tremendous friction that we simply accept. It builds stigma, shame, waste, and ultimately a plethora of extra support systems needed to solve for those direct and indirect consequences.
A shocking number of eligible families do not even make use of the programs they are eligible for. The reasons are complex and beyond this musing. A significant number of our families are just above the threshold to qualify. From what I can find the average number of New Hampshire students participating in the lunch program at school every day is 80,728.
For most of this we simply accept it as the way it has always been. A necessary part of life. But it doesn’t need to be this way. We all have a choice in how we express our priorities. Not only can we make the change here in NH, but we can follow others who have lead the way with programs created to test alternative options.
While I initially had focused on Portsmouth, NH I have now re-thought that narrow focus. Surely Portsmouth can do better, but this is a bigger problem and needs a bigger conversation. New Hampshire needs to be looking at this. It has to start somewhere. Perhaps that is Portsmouth’s role. Perhaps there are many others having this same conversation. Some attention is being paid by NH. This year there was a bill passed and signed that increased access to breakfast as well as lunch. A small but good step.
Yes, there will be a cost. There always is. It should spur rigorous conversation about the merits, needs, costs and ultimately the priorities of our citizenry. I know where I land on the conversation. Where do you?