Opinion: Hungry kids in Georgia need more than a cheese sandwich

In the wake of a school lunch controversy in Decatur, a guest columnist asks what is the government’s role in ensuring kids are fully nourished at school? (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In the wake of a school lunch controversy in Decatur, a guest columnist asks what is the government’s role in ensuring kids are fully nourished at school? (Dreamstime/TNS)

In a guest column, Staci Fox, president and CEO of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, addresses the $88,000 in outstanding school meal debt recently reported by the City Schools of Decatur.

By Staci Fox

At a January school board meeting, City Schools of Decatur reported $88,000 in meal debt. This figure prompted leaders to announce that starting in February, students with debt from meal charges would be served cheese sandwiches and milk until the bills were paid.

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.

Staci Fox

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

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.