By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
NASHVILLE — The federal government and the Nashville Metro School System believe the best way to make a child feel less insecure about accepting a free school lunch is to give everybody a free lunch.
And, yes, that even includes all of the kids who are already well off.
School system officials announced last week that all 85,000 of its students will have access to free breakfasts and lunches if they want them.
Taxpayers, of course, will pay an unknown amount for it through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program, known as the Community Eligibility Provision.
USDA officials have already reimbursed school system officials for the free school lunch program in prior years. The new program is simply an expansion of what the USDA was already doing.
The idea, school officials, say, is to make sure kids don’t go hungry, feel less embarrassed about enrolling in the free lunch program and, ultimately, make better grades.
“This will have a ripple effect on academic achievement, student discipline and school culture,” according to a press release school officials released Wednesday.
But will school officials use any sort of barometer to measure whether the program impacts overall student grades? After all, school officials take statistics on a number of other things, including the race and ethnicity of who already participates in the free school lunch program, according to school system spokesman Joe Bass.
The answer, Bass said, is no.
“We often get asked a lot to attribute a bump in performance to one particular program, but there’s so many different programs and so many different variables that that’s really difficult to do,” Bass told Tennessee Watchdog. “While we expect to see some benefits in academics, it’s not something I think we’ll be able to track because there are so many other variables that affect academics.”
The USDA program is set for four years, and Bass said he can’t predict what will happen after that.
About 72 percent of students in the school system qualify for free and reduced lunches, and Bass said he didn’t known what kinds of household incomes the remaining 28 percent of students come from.
School system officials have an incentive to make sure as many kids as possible participate, according to Nashville’s News Channel 5.
“Metro Schools will be reimbursed based on how many free meals it serves as part of a four-year commitment,” according to the station. “The more meals served, the more likely the program can be sustained. Food costs for the district amount to about 35 percent, or more than $10 million of the school nutrition budget.”
Mark Cunningham, spokesman for the free market think tank Beacon Center of Tennessee, said that aspect of the plan troubles him.
“The district will continue to ask for more taxpayer money since it can’t possibly cut free breakfast and lunch for children, even from wealthy families, once it makes that promise,” Cunningham said.
“This is just another reason why throwing more money at education isn’t the answer. Instead of spending existing taxpayer money to give children a better education, the Nashville school district has instead decided to use the money to give free breakfast and lunch to every child, including those from upper class families.”
Bass called the move “a huge win for all of our families.”
“We have a lot of families who may fall right outside the qualifications for free- and reduced-priced lunches, but it can still be a strain on their budgets to pay three to four dollars every day for a school lunch.”
Last year the school system had a food services budget of $42 million, and $32 million of that came through USDA requirements, according to the press release.
USDA officials didn’t immediately return our requests for comment Friday.
The school system serves 12.5 million meals every school year, according to the press release. The program will start in August.
No information was available Friday on what other school systems in Tennessee are participating.
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