Could every student get free meals at S.C. schools? Panel considers benefits, costs

Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 5:50 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Could South Carolina become the first state in the southeast to guarantee every student eats for free at school?

That possibility is under consideration right now at the State House.

A committee whose members include lawmakers and school district leaders is currently taking a look at food services in South Carolina public schools.

On Tuesday, it focused on the costs and benefits of providing universal free school meals.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R – Lexington, has filed a bill to implement such a program across the state, and her legislation has since picked up bipartisan cosponsors.

“In the ICU, I see kids who come in starving to death. That’s happening in this state,” Dr. Elizabeth Mack, a pediatric critical care physician, said. “Not every meal is at school. There’s summer, there’s weekends, all of that. But there is a large proportion of meals that can be served in the schools, and we know that those meals, in most places, are healthy.”

Right now, certain students are eligible for free meals at school because they meet certain qualifications, like their family income being below a certain threshold.

This year, nearly 1,000 schools across the state are providing free meals to every student, covered largely by federal reimbursements as part of the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.

Dr. Mack, the current president of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said research shows access to healthy school meals can lead to reduced risk of chronic disease and mental health concerns and improved academic performance for students, among other benefits.

“Healthy bodies equals healthy minds, a better learning environment for all, a better life for teachers and all those in education,” she said.

The South Carolina Department of Education said its most recent estimate of how much it would cost to provide free breakfast and lunch to every student in the state, making up the difference from what federal reimbursements cover, could be as much as around $60 million a year, based on figures from March of this year.

But the department said that the estimated cost is likely lower now because more schools are receiving federal meal reimbursements this school year after the state expanded eligibility criteria by including students who are eligible for Medicaid.

The Department of Education said it should have a more accurate cost estimate by mid-November.

“Studies show that no-cost meals can lead to anywhere from a 4-to-6% decrease in chronic absenteeism,” Patrick Kelly of the Palmetto State Teachers Association said. “If we can find a policy action, like universal meals, that helps us reduce student absenteeism, it has a ripple effect on student academics.”

Every student across the country qualified for free meals for a few years during the COVID-19 pandemic, and teachers say they saw the benefits.

“Not only were my office referrals down — I only had one during those two years — but my classroom was overall a more joyous space for my learners,” Emily Mayer, a former teacher in the Beaufort County School District, said. “We created a stronger community together by sharing this mealtime, and then at lunchtime, students were able to enjoy their meals together without any shame of not being the one that had a hot meal.”

The committee will later submit recommendations to the General Assembly for any changes it determines should be made to South Carolina’s school nutrition services, which could include implementing universal free meals.

Those proposals are due by the end of this year before the new legislative session begins in January, the earliest lawmakers could take any action resulting from those recommendations.

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