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Now About That Cheese Sandwich Debate . . .

The full House finally debated the school lunch nutrition bill last week. This bill, passed earlier by the Senate, updated our state code to reference the new federal school lunch guidelines.

The House Education Committee had amended the bill to require school districts to offer the same full lunch to all students on free or reduced lunch programs. Currently, some districts offer an alternative lunch to students on the reduced lunch program who cannot pay for lunch – the so called “cheese sandwich” option.

After the debate in which a one-year extension was added to the original amendment granting school districts time to comply, the House voted down the amendment 64 (16 Democrats sided with 46 Republicans) to 35 (12 Republicans sided with 13 Democrats) and kept the cheese sandwich option. I supported the amendment and spoke against the cheese sandwich.

During my research for the debate, I found a seminar on the USDA school lunch website entitled “The Challenges of Unpaid Meals: Proven Strategies From Our Nations Schools – February 23, 2016.” This seminar was developed using data submitted by individual school districts to the USDA.

After the USDA published a school lunch operations study of the 2011-2012 school year, Congress recognized that denying an individual student access to the same lunch available to other students carried with it the potential for abuse. They directed the USDA to gather additional data on alternative lunches and report their findings.

In October 2014, the USDA requested information from every school district in the country specifically about their unpaid meals policies and procedures. They also asked each state department of education to submit statewide policies that pertained to unpaid school lunches. The unpaid meals seminar was one of the products of their research.

During our k-12 subcommittee hearing, no lobbyist from the different k-12 special interest groups presented evidence that South Carolina school districts submitted data or even knew that a study had been performed or that a seminar existed.

According to the 2012 operations study, only 6% of the states had developed a statewide policy for individual school districts to follow. South Carolina’s Department of Education has not. At the minimum, such a policy should prohibit the shaming of the student because his parents did not take care of their financial responsibility to him.

By responsibility, I mean that a parent or guardian has the obligation to contact the school district and figure out a way to pay for the student’s lunch – preferably in advance. Remember, we are only talking about those students who have already qualified for the reduced lunch program. For the parents of those students, the out-of-pocket cost is $.40 each day to receive the full lunch offered to all other students.

As part of their strategy to defeat the amendment, some of our school districts claimed that it was an unfunded mandate from the state to the school districts that would cost $50 million statewide. The $50 million amount was a scare tactic used to intimidate lawmakers and judging from the vote count, it worked.

Regrettably, those lawmakers who believed the $50 million amount did not ask the school districts why they were allowing that much money to be left uncollected. If nutrition aids learning and improves test scores, then the $50 million number casts the school districts in an even more questionable light than before.

In reality, the possible fiscal impact statewide, assuming that no attempt was made to collect lunch money from the parents, was $2.6 million as reported by our state economist. Using the policies suggested in the seminar, the amount would be much less.

Though they won the debate, the school districts were left with an odor of villiany about them. They came across as cynical, intractable and out of touch at the very moment when intelligent forward thinking is needed in our public school system.

The General Assembly spent this year passing several education reform bills that set the foundation to bring educational equality to students in all school districts. If our school districts fight this hard against equality in the lunchroom, how will they ever be capable of delivering it in the classroom? Will a cheese sandwich become symbolic of the future educational opportunities offered to our students? Questions to think on before our next legislative session.