According to the New York Times' Christine Hauser, roughly 30 millions students receive a meal provided by the federal National School Lunch Program:
About 20 million of those meals are free; eight million are paid in full, and two million are served at a reduced price, according to government figures published by the School Nutrition Association.
When a child can't pay for their lunch, the cost of that meal does not disappear; the child goes into "lunch debt." This does not mean they are denied food, but given different food instead. One public school district in Rhode Island announced in May it would offer an alternative meal in the form of a "sun butter and jelly sandwich" (likely opting for sunflower seed butter to avoid peanut allergies).
Although alternative meals may not be what students prefer, schools must take into account how much they spend on food and how much they get back, while of course still feeding children. Some adults remember receiving a barebones meal of bread and cheese:
The Child Hunger Prevention and Fair Treatment Act of 2017...requires certain local educational agencies, as defined, that provide school meals through the federal National School Lunch Program or the federal School Breakfast Program to ensure that a pupil whose parent or guardian has unpaid school meal fees is not shamed, treated differently, or served a meal that differs from what a pupil whose parent or guardian does not have unpaid school meal fees....
For some legislators and parents, a cold sandwich is simply not acceptable. Children will still be hungry during the day with only a meager meal to sustain them, and alternative meals draw a line between students who cannot pay and the rest—the sandwich acts as a "marker of shame," as Hauser puts it.
From district officials to cafeteria workers, everyone wants school children to be full and focused during their time in school. But the economic reality means that alternative, cheaper meals must be provided to students who cannot afford a full school lunch. Patricia Montague, the CEO of the School Nutrition Association, explains that school meals are financially independent of a school district's education budget. She states:
However, federal regulations prohibit school meal programs from carrying debt from unpaid meal charges from one school year to the next. So when parents don’t pay the balance, and meal programs are unable to cover the costs, school districts are forced to pick up the tab. As a result, many school meal programs have been forced to institute controversial charge policies governing whether, and what, their school cafeterias will serve to students who are unable to pay for a meal.
School districts can amass hundreds of thousands of debt from unpaid meals charges. According to Montague, the perfect solution has yet to be found, but everyone has the students' best interest in mind. Eliminating the need to pay for school lunch is not a realistic solution to the problem at hand.
But for many parents, this seems like a no-brainer. All school lunches should be free. New Food Economy reports:
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 30 million students participate in free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) and more than 14 million participate in free or reduced-price breakfast under the School Breakfast Program (SBP) during the school year. That’s 30 million students who rely on their schools for at least one meal a day.
With this reality in mind, it's hard to argue against providing free school lunch to children who cannot afford to pay. Schools have responsibility to offer well-balanced, nutritious meals to students, and as such, schools should give every student the same quality of food and nutrition regardless of their ability to pay.