SC Senate Proposes Free Meals for Students in Reduced-Price Lunch Program

South Carolina students who qualify for meals at a discounted price would now be exempt from paying anything under a Senate budget proposal in Columbia.

Students who don’t meet the criteria for free meals currently pay 30 cents for breakfast and 40 cents for lunch. Almost 10,000 students in the state are eligible for this reduced rate, while 622,000 students can avail of free meals.

Senator Katrina Shealy’s budget provision ensures that no student would have to worry about finding spare change to cover meal costs.

While 70 cents per day might not seem significant for most students who have both meals at school – adding up to $3.50 weekly for Monday through Friday – it can make a significant difference for families fitting the criteria, according to Shealy, a member of Senate Finance and chair of the Senate Family and Veterans’ Services Committee.

Shealy’s proposal, included in the Senate Finance budget package, is projected to cost the state less than $1.5 million within a $13.2 billion spending plan. Depending on the number of eligible students who enroll, the cost could be as low as $530,000 if the participation rate remains the same.

“We squander comparable sums on far less critical matters,” Shealy stated to the SC Daily Gazette.

The Republican from Lexington aims for this to be a stepping stone towards providing free meals to all K-12 public school students.

“The only progress I could make was taking a nibble of the apple,” she remarked. “In the coming year, we can focus on extending free lunches to all.”

In November 2022, she introduced a bill calling for the state to reimburse school districts for any expenses not covered by the federal government, which could pave the way for free meals for all students; however, the bill hasn’t advanced to a hearing.

Education Chairman Greg Hembree and other GOP members expressed apprehension about the anticipated expenses.

Providing universal meals in K-12 schools might amount to up to $192.4 million, as estimated in March 2023 by state fiscal analysts. Alternative estimates suggest a lower cost, with a ballpark range of $50-60 million from a joint House-Senate panel in August. Shealy anticipates the cost to be around $40 million.

Regardless of the final expenses, Hembree believes the funding could nourish many families who do not require assistance with meals.

“I don’t want to provide welfare to families who are not in need,” stated the Little River Republican.

However, he signaled support for covering the reduced-price gap, citing its minor scale.

“Given the negligible contribution, I see no issue with that,” Hembree conveyed to the SC Daily Gazette.

Eligibility for free or reduced-cost meals is determined by a family’s income. For instance, a family of three, whether single-parent or two-parent with one child, is eligible for free meals with a household income below $32,320. Income levels between $32,320 and $45,991 qualify children for reduced-cost meals at 70 cents daily.

The majority of South Carolina’s K-12 public schools meet the requirements for a federal program covering meal expenses for students automatically. Eligibility expanded last autumn due to a lower qualifying threshold set by the federal government, though not all eligible schools in South Carolina partake.

This discrepancy arises from the federal reimbursements falling short of covering meals for each student, Hembree noted.

A provision from the prior state budget, set to roll over, aimed to boost participation by compelling local school boards to either join where eligible or provide a public rationale for non-participation.

The provision also prohibits “lunch shaming,” preventing schools from denying meals or substituting them with alternatives, like a cold sandwich in a paper bag, for students with meal debts. It further bars using meal debt as leverage against students, whether in extracurriculars, graduation events, or other school activities.

Thus, there is minimal real consequence for students accumulating meal debts due to financial constraints, Hembree explained.

“We’ve taken the necessary steps” to prevent children from being stigmatized, he informed the senators.

Yet Shealy expresses concerns about schools leveraging money to inhibit students from participating in extracurriculars or attending graduation. Eliminating costs entirely would nullify these issues for students benefiting from reduced-cost meals, she asserted.

She intends to pursue this initiative in the upcoming year.

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