State Senator Cassie Chambers Armstrong and Op-Ed co-writer State Representative Chad Aull
As parents, back-to-school season is always a time of excitement for our families and communities. However, this year, as legislators, we are focused not just on the typical hustle and bustle of new teachers, new classes, and new friends, but also on another reality of what school means to many Kentucky kids: an opportunity to get a healthy meal.
We believe that every child deserves access to nutritious food; yet not every child has enough food, or enough healthy food. With 26.2% of Kentucky children living in poverty as of 2020 and 62% of our public school students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, it is clear that too many Kentucky kids are food insecure.
Nutritional insecurity among students is not only a question of public health, but also of educational equity. Food insecurity can affect children’s ability to learn and develop, which has long-lasting impacts on their education, future income potential, and ultimately their quality of life.
That’s why we are proposing legislation to expand access to school meals for Kentucky kids.
Our bill would provide new funding for schools to expand access to meals. Right now, the federal government provides schools in low-income areas with the ability to offer no-charge meals to all enrolled students. Under the current guidelines, schools can opt into the program if 40% or more of their students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
However, the federal program doesn’t cover the full cost of these meals. We want to help by providing additional reimbursement to schools to allow them to feed more kids. For less than a dollar per meal, we can ensure more Kentucky kids in vulnerable communities have access to the nutritious food they need.
Other states have already implemented similar policies, and six provide free school meals for all public school students. Kentucky has long been a leader in making sure our students have nutritious meals, including being among the first 10 states to take advantage of the federal program our bill would expand. It’s vital we stay at the forefront.
Studies and common sense show that school meals have a significant positive impact on learning; after all, it’s hard to concentrate if you’re chronically hungry. With that in mind, Kentucky also has done well to incorporate local farm-fresh products in our school meals, and recently received several million federal dollars to boost that connection between schools and our agricultural community. That’s a win for our students, our schools, and our farmers.
We urge fellow legislators to stand with us in supporting the children of Kentucky. Investing in school meals is investing in our future. It’s a chance to level the playing field for those children who, through no fault of their own, are at a disadvantage. The well-being and potential of our children should be our highest priority, and in Kentucky, we must be sure no child goes hungry while trying to learn.