Kinkead discusses free school meals for Pennsylvanian kids
District 20 News: State Rep. Kinkead
Another summer is fading away and a new school session is now underway for our kids. This is a familiar transition for most of us, but there’s something very different about this school year. Thanks to the state budget my colleagues and I passed in Harrisburg this summer, every public school student in Pennsylvania is eligible to receive free breakfast on every school day of the year.
Providing a daily, morning meal to all 1.7 million public school students in Pennsylvania costs $46.5 million and is a fantastic use of taxpayer dollars. The return on this investment will be significant, helping reduce food insecurity for kids across the commonwealth while also improving our public schools. Research has shown that when kids eat regularly during the school day, it increases learning outcomes for everyone in the classroom. When young students are hungry, they can become disruptive to the learning environment, so feeding learning minds benefits teachers, students and staff.
While universal free school breakfast is worth celebrating and a great step toward addressing child hunger in Pennsylvania, providing free lunch would make a much bigger dent in food insecurity, as many kids do not arrive at school in the early hours when breakfast is served. State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, and I have been beating the universal school meals drum nonstop since the federal pandemic-era programs providing free breakfast and lunch expired. Those temporary programs demonstrated the immense benefits of providing nutrition to students at no cost. We should make them permanent. Sen. Williams and I introduced companion legislation — H.B. 180 and S.B. 180 — to create a universal free school meals program (both breakfast and lunch) in Pennsylvania, but neither bill has been brought up for a committee vote, a crucial step in a bill becoming law. Rest assured we will keep fighting until free school lunch is a reality here in Pennsylvania.
Some would argue that the National School Lunch Program already does enough to feed school kids who may not get enough to eat at home by offering free and reduced lunches to income-eligible children. However, eligibility for the program is based solely on income. The reality is there are myriad circumstances apart from income that could impact a child’s access to nutrition at home. It’s shameful that some kids who don’t eat at home are then refused lunch at school because “on paper” their family should be able to afford meals. When a child is denied a meal at school because they cannot pay for it, they are often bullied by other kids. In some cases, they are publicly shamed by school policies like stamping hands or stapling letters to their clothing. I’ve even had a Pennsylvania teacher reach out to me about a student who was charged with theft for eating a school meal they could not afford. On top of reducing stigma for kids from low-income families, offering free lunch to all students would also eliminate administrative work at schools associated with collecting lunch debt.
According to the most recent data from Feeding America, approximately 325,000 children in Pennsylvania are facing hunger. If government officials are serious about ending child hunger, offering free school lunch in addition to breakfast is the perfect place to start. The state requires kids to attend school, so the state should also provide adequate nutrition for kids while they are in school. While free school lunch isn’t here yet, I’m pleased that bipartisan support for the program is growing. More than 20 school districts across 12 counties, as well as the Pennsylvania State Education Association, have passed resolutions supporting my legislation to create a universal meals program. I’m hopeful more of my colleagues will join me in calling for free lunch throughout the rest of this legislative session.
If you know a family that is facing hunger, they may be eligible for food programs at the state and local level. For more information on these programs or help with any state-related issues, call my office at (412) 321-5523 or email me at RepKinkead@pahouse.net. My staff and I would love to help however we can.