A Chance to Eliminate Lunch Debt for North Dakota Students

The North Dakota Legacy Fund has passed $6 billion and legislators are hearing from the public about what should be done. One of the issues seemingly gaining support is creating a universal lunch program for North Dakota’s public schools. Dane DeKrey, the Advocacy Director of the ACLU of North Dakota explained the idea on “Afternoons Live with Tyler Axness” on KFGO.

First, it is important to look at how we got to the point where student lunch debt is an issue. North Dakota decided that all public students should get a hot lunch, not an alternative. It was a great decision by the state, but one that had unintended consequences. In essence, it is another unfunded mandate on school districts created by the state. Those school districts have relied on parents to pick up the tab. Unfortunately, some parents can’t afford to pay for the hot lunch, so they go into “lunch debt.” School districts are struggling with this debt and trying to eliminate it. Families are being punished.

The current lunch debt policies from school districts aren’t ideal, nor are they necessarily working. Part of the reason? They rely entirely on punishment. The student is punished because their parents are unable to afford the payment. The parents are punished in some cases by having the debt sent to collections and impacting their credit. Worse, it is said some school districts have threatened to get social services involved. Do we really want to criminalize poverty?

We don’t think that it’s right to threaten otherwise good parents with losing their kids simply because they don’t have the money to pay for their school lunch. – Dane DeKrey, Advocacy Director of ACLU of North Dakota

Dane DeKrey, Advocacy Director. ACLU of ND

I’ve long questioned the method of how we pay for student lunches. It is a frequent topic of conversation on my KFGO radio show. Though the efforts are noble, do we really want to host charity events and fundraisers just so students in a public school setting can eat a hot lunch and help them focus in the classroom? Other school essentials are included in budgets like tablets and textbooks. Why not lunches?

Enter Jason Boynton, an NDSU professor who started the Lunch Aid concert and is now asking the Legislature to consider using the Legacy Fund to provide universal school lunches to North Dakota students. The ACLU of ND, AFL-CIO, and North Dakota United have all shown support for the idea. This program is estimated to cost approximately $55 million annually. In a fund that earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year in interest alone. The program would be a drop in the bucket.

Adding universal lunch to education funding in North Dakota would eliminate the unfunded mandate created by the state that is impacting the school districts and more importantly families. Districts would no longer have to worry about lunch debt. Parents would no longer get sent to collections or be threatened with having their kids taken away. Students no longer have prom or graduation participation held over their heads until the lunch debt is paid. What better legacy for North Dakota than ensuring a quality education for future generations removed from the distraction of hunger?