The Schenectady school district’s free-for-all lunch program is surely the simplest way to deal with a sad fact of life: Some parents are so embarrassed by their family’s meager income that they’d rather let their kids go hungry than fill out the form necessary to let them get a federally subsidized school lunch.
As detailed in Friday’s Gazette story, Schenectady parents will no longer have to fill out a form; all kids in the district will be offered the same free lunch, and no one — no administrator, no cashier, not even the kids themselves — will know who could afford one and who could not. This program is available courtesy of the federal government because at least 40 percent of the district’s students qualify based on income eligibility.
Actually, the percentage is roughly double that figure — 80 percent — so it’s not as if there will be that many students getting a lunch their parents can afford.
Still, in this age of huge federal deficits, it is a little troubling that even 20 percent of the district’s student body will be getting free lunches they don’t really need. The rationale for doing so — and it originates with the feds, not the school district — concerns the issue of stigmatizing students who do need the free or subsidized lunch.
They simply won’t eat them if they think anyone knows, and that’s a problem because it’s not only unhealthy, it hinders their ability to learn and encourages them to distract others.
Most school districts have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that this information is kept confidential. They assign students PIN numbers (with families that don’t qualify for the free lunches charging their accounts periodically, as with a debit card). And when kids bring their lunch to the cashier and punch in their number, it’s not readily apparent who’s really paying and who’s not. (And if that’s not the case, then schools need to go to greater lengths to ensure that it is.)
Currently, only about half of Schenectady’s students are eating school lunches. This program should get the number a lot closer to 100 percent. If giving the lunches to a relatively small number of kids who can afford them is what it takes, it will be worth it.