Free School Lunch Should Return For Good

If we are in school for 6 hours and 45 minutes, then a healthy, nutritious meal is not an outrageous request.

Sara Torres, Opinion Staff

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, families in Montgomery County faced not only isolation but an increasing strain on the economy. As unemployment rates rose, so did food insecurity, experienced by nearly half of families with children in the United States. In response, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) used waivers from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to set up distribution sites that gave out nutritious meals. This plan was then expanded to allow school lunches to be free for every student, regardless of their socio-economic status, during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Many students across the county had hoped that this free lunch for all policy would continue into the 2022-2023 school year. It was the right direction for MCPS, which has accumulated debt with families who in the past have not been able to afford or keep up with payments. This debt varies by school but averages over $10,000 in total. Eliminating that weight off of families already juggling financial stress, was a step forward. Not to mention the relief for students knowing a free lunch was always available for them in the cafeteria, regardless of their reason for needing it. 

Despite all this, in Spring 2022, MCPS opted to get rid of the policy. Students are currently required to pay full price for school lunches unless they have applied and qualified for the county’s program, Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS). However, many families who do not qualify for FARMS still face financial struggles that school lunch, and the accumulation of school lunch debt, only compound. As of this year, qualifiers to FARMS may have their debt removed; however, non-qualifiers are left without this aid. Reinstating the FARMS application instead of providing free lunch neglects students around the county who don’t qualify for FARMS, but still can not afford to buy lunch from the school.

MCPS should update its school meal program and structure, with the ultimate goal of providing free lunch to all students. Bringing back the school lunch policy may be costly, but MCPS’s operating budget for 2023 is $2.92 billion – $137.9 million larger than last year’s budget. Even with the loss of federal funding, we should prioritize countywide free lunch within this year’s increased budget. Reinstating this policy is a step that MCPS should, not only take, but keep, for years to come.  

The school cafeteria is arguably the easiest place to get food for lunch and it’s this convenience that can help us ensure every child is being properly nourished. If we want our students to succeed, the first step is making sure their minds and bodies are ready to learn. Lunch is a time to refocus and reset, but also to physically re-energize before the rest of your day. It is imperative that any stress falling on a student regarding what they will have for lunch be eliminated. If we are in school for 6 hours and 45 minutes, then a healthy, nutritious meal is not an outrageous request.