Forum Editorial: North Dakota has the ability to end ‘lunch shaming.’ Does it have the will?
Providing paid school lunches for all students in North Dakota public schools would be a major step toward assuring food security. Last year, one in six residents received food assistance.
It’s important to take a moment to remember the eye-opening realization that prompted the establishment of the National School Lunch Program.
The program started in 1946 after the military realized that many men were unable to enlist in World War II because of the long-term effects of childhood malnutrition.
In 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14.8% of children reported being food insecure in the past 30 days. Last year, 140,000 people — or one in six North Dakotans — sought food assistance through the Great Plains Food Bank and its network of community food pantries.
The problem of hunger is unfortunately all too common.
We know that the school lunch meal is critical to student health and well-being, especially low-income students. It ensures that students have the nutrition they need throughout the day to learn.
Research shows that receiving free or reduced-price school lunches reduces food insecurity, obesity rates and poor health. School meal nutrition standards can improve the food students eat, especially for fruits and vegetables.
If it has the will, North Dakota has the means to ensure that every student in public schools has access to meals at no cost to their families.
The North Dakota Legislature is considering House Bill 1491 , which would provide meals at no cost to all students enrolled in public schools across the state. The price tag for providing meals to the 115,000 students attending North Dakota public schools for two years would be $89.5 million.
That was the appropriation proposed in House Bill 1491 when originally introduced. But after being heard by the House Education Committee, the bill has been scaled back to provide up to a $6 million grant to the superintendent of public instruction for grants to school districts to defray the expenses of providing meals, free of charge, for all students at or below 200% of federal poverty level enrolled in public schools for the next biennium.
For a family of four, 200% of the federal poverty level is $30,000.
That meager level of support is inadequate to the scale of the problem, and an embarrassment for a state as rich as North Dakota, flush with reserves and contingency funds and a Legacy Fund bulging with a balance of $8.5 billion.
Once again, one in six North Dakotans received food assistance last year. For a student in a poor family, school meals can provide the assurance of at least one good meal every school day.
Another proposal, House Bill 1494 , offers a fallback plan, one that doesn’t require any state appropriation but sets policies to eliminate what’s come to be called “lunch shaming” — the denial of meals when the student can’t afford to pay.
Among other things, schools would be prohibited from serving alternate meals or denying meals for students with insufficient funds; discarding a student’s meal because of an unpaid balance; identifying a student with any sort of sticker or stamp; forcing a student to work off their debt through chores; or limiting a student’s ability to participate in school activities because of an unpaid school lunch debt.
North Dakota has the ability to do more — much more — to ensure that students have the nutrition they need to perform well in school and get a good start in life. The North Dakota Legislature should rise up to meet this challenge.