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Our View: Free breakfast for all students? It's a good start

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Our View
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In 1992, a writer named Rebecca Camu did something no one had done before – not in print, anyway. In a short story titled “A Splinter of Glass,” Camu became the first author to use the adjective “hangry,” a word that wouldn't make it into the Oxford English Dictionary for another 23 years.

Today, most people know “hangry” as a combination of the words hungry and angry, and we've all been there. Early meeting, got up too late for breakfast, and by mid-morning you want to throw your laptop out a window and watch it land on the hood of your boss's Tesla. But you're a grownup, so you buy a granola bar from the vending machine and get back to work.

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Kids can't always do that – and yes, kids get hangry, too.

That's why we commend the Plainview-Elgin-Millville School District, which this week announced that all first-graders will receive free breakfast each day of the 2022-23 school year .

Granted, in the big picture this isn't a massive commitment. Free breakfast for first-graders will cost just $30,000 this school year, and if this turns out to be just a one-off, then ultimately it won't mean much. But PEM has expressed a goal of continuing and even expanding the free breakfast program in the future.

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That could be a game-changer.

On any given school day in America, 3 million students show up hungry and have little opportunity to eat something before lunch. They take spelling tests on an empty stomach. They attend phy ed classes. They divide fractions. They try to stay awake during geography lessons and reading time, all while watching the clock tick slowly toward their first meal of the day. And yes, it's safe to say that some of them get “hangry” and cause trouble.

Some readers are likely asking, “How hard is it to heat up a frozen waffle, pour a bowl of cereal or give your kid an apple or a breakfast bar on their way out the door?”

It's a fair question. While kids ideally should eat a balanced breakfast, including some fruit and protein, the reality is that even a bowl of Froot Loops or a strawberry Pop-Tart would be far better than nothing. Kids can do pretty well on just about any breakfast food, and we suspect that today's corporate board rooms are well-populated with CEOs who ate a lot of Frosted Flakes during their elementary school years.

So yes, parents should be able to invest 30 seconds and 50 cents to put some sort of breakfast in front of their children each day – but the data indicates that many can't do it, or simply don't. It's not their kids' fault, and children who come to school hungry shouldn't be penalized for their parents' economic woes and/or unwillingness to make breakfast a priority.

Free breakfast for all is a great solution to this problem – but it might be just a first step.

The COVID-19 pandemic put a new spotlight on the importance of school-provided meals. With so many families facing economic uncertainty, and with students studying in almost every environment imaginable, the federal government provided $22 billion over a two-year period to ensure that no student had to pay for a school-provided meal. The usual paperwork and income requirements for free meals disappeared, as did the challenge of dealing with families who failed to pay their kids' lunch tabs.

But now the national free lunch has ended, and across Minnesota parents are being put on alert that unless they apply and qualify for free lunch, they'll need to get back into the habit of putting money into their child's lunch account.

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This isn't true everywhere, however. California and Maine begin this school year as the first states to offer free meals for all students, regardless of income, and Colorado voters will decide in November whether they want to use state tax dollars to fully fund school lunches.

Minnesota started down that path last spring but didn't get very far. Gov. Walz proposed using part of the state budget surplus for a universal meals program, but the proposal didn't make it into the House omnibus education bill.

The idea isn't dead, and Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have indicated that they'll continue to pursue some form of universal meals program in Minnesota. While there's no guarantee that Walz will occupy the governor's mansion next spring, we suspect (and hope) that free breakfast and lunch for all Minnesota students will be a fairly easy sell to legislators on both sides of the political aisle – especially if the state's coffers are still flush with surplus cash.

We won't go so far as to say such a program is inevitable here. California, after all, isn't known as a beacon of fiscal prudence, so its example isn't necessarily one Minnesota should race to follow. Still, we expect that within a few years, many states, if not most, will provide free meals for all students.

In so doing, they'll eliminate a lot of administrative headaches. More importantly, they'll also nix any possibility of “lunch shaming,” which is the not-so-polite term for the humiliations suffered by students whose free-lunch status is a source of embarrassment, or who have been denied meals or given an “alternative” lunch because of an unpaid bill.

Given the choice between hunger or humiliation, a lot of kids will choose hunger every time. And that's a choice that no child should EVER have to make.

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