Moving toward a new ‘universe?’

USDA launches pilot in three states for universal free meal programs.

The federal government nudged a bit closer to the idea of free meals for all schoolchildren this summer when the U.S. Department of Agriculture selected three states to kick off a new universal free breakfast and lunch program. As the new school year kicks off, districts in Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan will have the option of providing free meals to all students, so long as at least 40% of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Although the three states are listed by the USDA as participating in a “pilot,” it doesn’t appear from USDA literature that this concept is at risk of being scuttled. The original release about the program, disseminated in late March, noted that more states would gradually be added until the 2014-15 school, when all states would be given the option.

As with any idea, there are pros and cons to universal meals in school. The biggest positive, of course, is that all students—no matter now poor—would be guaranteed 10 nutritious meals per week when schools are in session. Many school administrators believe that there are many students who currently don’t eat the meals to which they are entitled because they don’t want to be stigmatized as poor. They see universal free meals as a way to remove that stigma.

The biggest negatives are how will this program be funded as it moves toward national status, and the arguments from taxpayers who believe their taxes should not pay for meal for students whose parents can afford the cost.

In addition, according to some published reports there are some districts whose administrators believe the new program actually will net them less in federal funds than they receive now. Those districts are choosing to opt out of the deal.

The biggest question I have is, how solid is this program? After all, it is part of President Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The possibility that the president will be residing somewhere other than the White House beyond January 2013 is very real, and if that happens who knows what a Republican leader might do to such a program.

Success speaks for itself, so the plan might make such a overwhelming difference in the lives of young Americans that it would survive the worst conservatives could throw at it. The biggest problem is, the fledgling program might never survive to maturity.

I personally haven’t decided where I stand on the issue. For the time being, I’m willing to go on a little faith; I don’t want any child to suffer if we can do anything to prevent it. But schools have barely opened this year and the clock is already ticking.

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