The issue was swiftly resolved through the generosity of the Arby’s Foundation. However, the news has reignited a crucial conversation about the broader challenges Georgia’s children face. As someone deeply engaged in how our state raises and spends money, this story raised a lot of questions for me.
My mind went first to the kids.
The district broke down the owed debt, detailing that 46% derived from students who pay for lunch, 36% from those receiving free or reduced lunch, 6% from district staff and 12% from students no longer in the school district.
Then I wanted to get a grasp on how many kids count on school for their meals.
One in every 10 children in Georgia is living in a family that cannot afford basic necessities such as housing and food, according to the latest data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Atlanta Community Food Bank reports that 13.3% or 1 in 8 children in Georgia are food insecure.
These and other data points indicate that at least 62% of kids and families across our state need support.
And as bad as hunger is for children in Georgia, it does not occur in a vacuum. Historical and institutionalized statewide inequities have produced these cheese sandwiches.
So, then I ask, what is the government’s role in ensuring kids are fully nourished at school? And more importantly, do they have the capacity to address this need?
In Georgia, all K-8 schools with 25% or more free and reduced-price certified students, and all other schools with 40% or more free and reduced-price certified students are required to establish and support a School Breakfast Program. All public schools must participate in the National School Lunch Program. But neither of these programs ensures all kids are fed.
Considering the state’s unprecedented $16 billion reserves, allocating funds for our children seems not only reasonable, but imperative. Doing so could be an amazing legacy opportunity for our governor. I can picture a “feeding and growing our next generation” program that further partners with local agriculture to provide breakfast and lunch to every Georgia student in public schools.
In fact, a bill was introduced in 2023 (House Bill 510) for which a fiscal note was written, so we know the estimated cost. Breakfast and lunch for all students in Georgia would cost $189,884,788 annually in additional state funds and $431,977,819 in additional state funds if federal funds discontinued for breakfast subsidies. At current costs, that means $2.67 for breakfast and $4.58 for lunch.
Child hunger is directly related to child poverty and family poverty, so we also know that policy solutions that lift families out of poverty also benefit children — and help feed them. Child poverty could be reduced by as much as 60% by focusing on policy solutions such as a child tax credit, an earned income tax credit and the state minimum wage. According to NationalAcademies.org:
- Georgia could increase the child and dependent care tax credit and make it fully refundable.
- Georgia could implement an earned income tax credit and a child tax credit.
- Georgia could increase the minimum wage.
Addressing child poverty isn’t as straightforward as earmarking $200 million from the $11 billion in undesignated reserves to feed school children for a year. Some lawmakers claim that committing recurring expenses with one-time “surplus” funds is irresponsible, but the numbers tell a different story. Georgia is on track to end fiscal year 2024 with another excess of unspent public funds, maintaining a trend of excess revenue since 2021 despite conservative revenue estimates.
And yes, it is good to have money socked away for emergencies, but the state already has a substantial $5.2 billion in the revenue shortfall reserve account. So how about setting aside a portion of the undesignated funds to stand up a comprehensive meal program for all Georgia public school students? That would give the state plenty of runway to incorporate the recurring expense in the fiscal year budget.
Seems like a cakewalk to me, and an opportunity to go far beyond giving hungry Georgia children a cheese sandwich.