NASHVILLE—School officials in Nashville don’t want kids to feel insecure about accepting a free school lunch, so they have decided to give everyone a free lunch—even kids who already are well off.
Federal taxpayers will foot at least part of the bill for this through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program known as the Community Eligibility Provision. USDA already reimbursed the school system for free lunches for the 72 percent of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. This merely expands that program to provide free breakfasts and lunch to all 85,000 students in Nashville who want them.
The idea, school officials, say, is to make sure kids don’t go hungry, feel less embarrassed about enrolling in the free lunch program and, ultimately, make better grades.
“This will have a ripple effect on academic achievement, student discipline and school culture,” according to a press release school officials released Wednesday.
How will officials know if this increased expenditure of local and federal dollars indeed does provide this “ripple effect”? They won’t, according to school system spokesman Joe Bass.
“We often get asked a lot to attribute a bump in performance to one particular program, but there’s so many different programs and so many different variables that that’s really difficult to do,” Bass said. “While we expect to see some benefits in academics, it’s not something I think we’ll be able to track because there are so many other variables that affect academics.”
Nashville’s school system serves 12.5 million meals per school year at a cost of $42 million—$32 million of which comes from the USDA. The free-lunches-for-all initiative is set for four years, and Bass said he can’t predict what will happen after that.
He said the program was expanded to reduce shame and reach those just outside the eligibility lines. He said Nashville has “a lot of families who may fall right outside the qualifications for free- and reduced-priced lunches, but it still can be a strain on their budgets to pay $3 to $4 every day for a school lunch.”
But a local TV station reports other incentives may be at work. More students receiving free meals could mean more federal money for the school system, according to Nashville’s News Channel 5.
“Metro Schools will be reimbursed based on how many free meals it serves as part of a four-year commitment,” according to the station. “The more meals served, the more likely the program can be sustained. Food costs for the district amount to about 35 percent, or more than $10 million of the school nutrition budget.”
Mark Cunningham, spokesman for the free market think tank Beacon Center of Tennessee, said that aspect of the plan troubles him.
“The district will continue to ask for more taxpayer money since it can’t possibly cut free breakfast and lunch for children—even from wealthy families—once it makes that promise,” Cunningham said.
“This is just another reason why throwing more money at education isn’t the answer. Instead of spending existing taxpayer money to give children a better education, the Nashville school district has instead decided to use the money to give free breakfast and lunch to every child, including those from upper-class families.”
USDA officials didn’t immediately return a request for comment, and no information was available on whether other Tennessee systems are participating.