COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - For the last two years, every student in the country has eaten for free at school, thanks to a federal pandemic-relief program.
But Congress declined to continue funding that program this school year, putting hundreds of thousands of South Carolina students at risk of losing access to those free breakfasts and lunches if their families, schools or districts did not apply to keep them enrolled.
Now a state senator wants every student in South Carolina to eat for free at school, starting next year.
“Everybody’s got somebody that this would affect,” Sen. Katrina Shealy, R – Lexington, said. “If you’re a teacher, it affects your students. If you’re a doctor, it affects your patients. It affects everybody.”
Shealy has pre-filed a bill that will be introduced when the new legislative session begins in January that provides universal free meals in all South Carolina public schools.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 60% of all K-12 students in South Carolina had a family income during the 2019-2020 school year that qualified them for free or reduced-price meals, which the federal government pays for.
If schools or districts have enough students who qualify for these meals, then they can apply for the federal government to cover the cost of meals for every student in that school or district through the Community Eligibility Provision.
More than half of South Carolina’s school districts fall into this category, but not all of them go through the process of applying for free meals for every student.
This bill would require those schools and districts to do that.
Then the state would cover the remaining costs to ensure every student eats for free at school.
“Kids don’t learn if they’re hungry,” Shealy said. “We need to make sure that they’re getting healthy, nutritious meals without feeling embarrassed if they can’t afford it.”
Meg Stanley, executive director of the nonprofit Wholespire, which works to promote healthy communities in South Carolina, agrees on the widespread benefits this legislation would provide.
She said studies have backed up Shealy’s assertion that students’ academic performances can suffer if they lack access to nutritious meals.
“Children are spending a majority of their waking hours on a school’s campus or perhaps during transportation hours if you combine the total time,” Stanley said. “So if we can ensure that there is good nutrition being received, then I think we can set them up for good academic success.”
The bill would also guarantee students have at least 20 minutes every day to sit down and eat their lunch, separate from the time it takes them to travel to and from the cafeteria and stand in line, waiting for their food.
A few states have recently passed universal free meal programs for their students, and more are considering funding them after the federal program was not renewed.
“This is something several states are looking at right now, and we want to try to be a leader in something positive,” Stanley said.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a ban on school districts using debt collectors to track down students and families with unpaid meal debts.
Shealy has requested a study into how much it would cost to implement her new legislation in South Carolina, but that estimate is not available yet.
She said it would be a good investment into South Carolina’s children, and its future workforce.
“We don’t want our kids to be hungry. We want kids to learn. We want them to be healthy. We want them to have nutritious meals,” Shealy said.
Senators will be able to take up this bill and other pre-filed legislation when the new legislative session begins next month.
Copyright 2022 WCSC. All rights reserved.