Sunday, July 5, 2020
July 5, 2020

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In Our View: Help districts take bite out of school meals debt

The Columbian

We realize the Legislature has a lot on its plate during its 60-day session, but we hope lawmakers can clear a little room to deal with an important issue: school lunch debt.

In 2018, lawmakers adopted a bill mandating that school districts provide lunch to all students, regardless of whether they have money in their lunch accounts. This was not only a compassionate step but a smart one, too, since children can’t learn if they are hungry. But the law has left school districts saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt from unpaid lunch accounts. According to a July story by The Columbian’s Katie Gillespie, Evergreen Public Schools ended the 2018-19 school year with $85,000 owed on lunch accounts; that debt was $51,000 and $56,000 for Vancouver and Battle Ground public schools, respectively. This unappetizing situation has forced districts to dip into already stretched general funds to repay those debts.

Generous students and others have raised or donated money to help address unpaid lunch accounts. Keoni Ching, an 8-year-old second-grader at Vancouver’s Benjamin Franklin Elementary School, is selling keychains made of lettered beads to pay off his classmates’ outstanding balances on their lunch accounts, Gillespie reported earlier this month. In less than a month, he’s raised $840 in sales and donations and is pushing toward $1,000.

While such kindness is to be commended, it’s also not a solution. School districts shouldn’t be turned into a modern-day version of Blanch DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” dependent “on the kindness of strangers.”

While there are no easy answers to the school lunch debt dilemma, we do think there are a few things state legislators — and the feds — could do to help address the problem.

First, legislators should petition the state’s congressional delegation to fight the Trump administration’s effort to tighten family eligibility for food stamps. Its current proposal could cost nearly 1 million children nationwide their automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals.

Second, perhaps it’s time the federal government eased its rule forbidding the use of school meal program money to address student lunch debt. Or maybe it should simply provide free meals for all students, period.

Third, support efforts to give school officials more authority to get parents whose families qualify for assistance to apply for it, including allowing school officials to fill out applications if that’s what it takes.

Finally, take some responsibility for the situation. As the News Tribune of Tacoma editorialized in November, while the law to end so-called “lunch shaming” was the right thing to do, it also created an unfunded mandate for schools. Given that districts are still struggling to adapt to changes in funding in the wake of the McCleary decision, requiring them to bear tens of thousands of dollars of unbudgeted debt is simply not fair.

Time is precious this legislative session, but so are our children. We encourage lawmakers to take steps to help school districts take a bite out of their lunch programs’ debt.