Now that federal pandemic aid to school districts paying for meals has ended, parents need to be responsible for that expense, Saline County legislators suggested during Friday’s legislative breakfast.
An audience member asked the lawmakers about student lunches during Friday morning’s Benton Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast.
The event was the first breakfast for this year’s legislative session, and state Representatives R.J. Hawk, Keith Brooks, Lanny Fite and Rick McClure, and state Senators Alan Clark and Kim Hammer were in attendance for the event.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, student lunches were paid for all students through a federal program for two years. The U.S. Congress opted to end the program instead of renewing it in June 2022, and the program expired in September. Now that a majority of legislation that included federal aid during the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to sunset, some parents are required to pay for students' meals again.
Lawmakers Hammer and Clark suggested that parents should be taking more responsibility when it comes to student lunches.
Hammer was the first to respond to the question. He said school officials have told him that parents need to be filling out the required forms to receive the proper assistance they need to make sure their kids get fed at school.
“In conversations with superintendents around the state, one of the things that I’ve heard is that there are a lot of kids, whom that if their parents could just fill out the form, the ability to get the free lunch is there,” said Hammer. “It’s neglect on the part of the parents to fill out the form to make sure that can be reimbursed.”
He also said that parents who can afford to pay for their kid's lunches and may have come accustomed to the lunches being provided during the pandemic, need to go back to what they were doing before and pay for their kid's lunches.
“Because that’s a direct cost passed on to the schools that the schools were not bearing before,” he said.
To qualify for free and reduced meals at school, parents must fill out a form for their students to receive the free and reduced meals. The audience member asked the legislators if there were any plans to go back to the pandemic-era law which provided all students with free meals at school.
Bryant School District reported to the state in October 2022 that 51 percent of students in the district qualify for free and reduced meals.
According to the Arkansas Department of Education’s data center, during the 2020-2021 school year, 35.17 percent of students qualified at Benton, 37.76 percent of students qualified at Harmony Grove and 35.7 percent of students qualified at Bauxite.
Hammer said the idea of the state picking up the entire food cost of school meals is on the table, but he thinks the first two problems he pointed out should be addressed first.
Clark responded to the question concerning student meals as well. He pointed out that there are schools that feed all of their students and he commends them for that. However, Clark said he has concerns about taking the responsibility away from parents.
“When are we going to quit taking responsibility from parents and giving it to the government? Because when you take responsibility away you also take authority,” he said. “While we mean well, this continual drive to put the government in charge of our kids is a mistake.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Human Services website, “any child at a participating school may purchase a meal through the National School Lunch program. Children from families with incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level are eligible for free meals. Those with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for reduced-price meals.”