America’s empty stomachs

Perhaps you knew about this, but I had no clue how big it has become. I have had a vague awareness that hungry children from low-income families were receiving free breakfasts at school, but free meals for kids at school is a much bigger project than that. Much.

On average, more than 29 million students also are served free lunches at nearly 100,000 schools and institutions in the United States every week, according to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). More than 20 million free lunches every year. That’s just the lunches.

Schools are required to serve meals at no charge to children whose household income is at or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines. Children are entitled to pay a reduced price if their household income is above 130 percent but at or below 185 percent of these guidelines. Children are automatically eligible for free school meals if their household receives food stamps, benefits under the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or, in most cases, benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that’s a little over $34,000 income per year.

That’s a lot of free meals. How much does this cost? Who’s paying for it? We pay for it with our federal taxes. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for each meal they serve.  I don’t have a total for all meals, but the tab for lunches alone comes to $13.8 billion annually.

The reality behind these big numbers rumbles in the deprived stomachs of so many children. America is home to hordes of hungry children who depend on those school meals as their best meal of the day, for too many of them, their only solid meal.

When we close our schools to protect ourselves from the spread of the coronavirus, we leave millions of hungry children without the daily meals they depend on. Millions of hungry children. Let’s think about this as we fill our carts with toilet paper at the supermarket.

To many, we are an affluent nation whose citizens grump about the personal inconveniences wrought by this virus. But to an increasing number of us, we are the source of our children’s next meal made necessary because we can’t afford to feed them on the inadequate wages we receive for our labor.

Are we who have what we need becoming outnumbered by those who have not? Something needs to change. Let’s start at the top.


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