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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Don't serve poor kids debt along with their school lunches

Students at North Carolina schools have racked up more than $3 million in lunch debt already this school year. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his On My Mind commentary, says the problem is charging for lunch in the first place.

Let me tell you what it was like to be a free-lunch kid.

What I remember clearest was second grade. Every Monday morning, our teacher would call a group of us up to her desk, in front of the rest of the class. She would hand each one of us a little blue punch card with our name on it. That blue card was a scarlet letter telling everybody your family was poor.

By the time I got to middle school, I was so ashamed I wouldn’t take the cards anymore. I scrounged up a few quarters from our change jar or just asked my mom or dad for the money. We really couldn’t spare it financially. But I couldn’t spare it emotionally.

Every so often I see something that brings back that old hurt again.

WFAE’s Kenneth Lee Jr. had a story the other day on how school lunch debt in North Carolina is up to $3.1 million. That figure doesn’t count students already eligible for free lunches. This includes students who are supposed to pay but don’t have the money. They get fed anyway but their debt goes on the books. Some school districts have gone as far as hiring debt collectors to get the money, although South Carolina passed a law last year outlawing that practice.

Are some kids trying to pull a version of the old dine-and-dash? Of course. But there are plenty of families who have jobs but are still stretched too thin. A federal program that paid for school lunches during the worst of the pandemic expired this school year. An expanded food-stamp program ended just this month.

There are three things here that seem fairly obvious to me.

One, hungry kids don’t do as well in class. I’m sure there are kids who avoid going through the lunch line because they’re too embarrassed to say they don’t have the money. Those kids are likely to be thinking about their next meal instead of math class.

Two, we require kids to come to school every day. Part of the deal ought to be that we cover their basic needs: classrooms, bathrooms, textbooks and so on. Lunch is a basic need. So is breakfast if we’re asking kids to start the school day early.

And three, whatever the parents’ situation, it’s not the child’s fault. Even if you could find parents who you didn’t think were deserving of aid for whatever reason, that’s no excuse to let a child suffer.

The bottom line is that meals at school ought to be free, no strings attached. If you’re one of those folks who thinks school should be run more like a business, well, what if your business wouldn’t let you leave the office all day? You’d expect them to feed you, right? It’s just common sense. And common decency.

Don’t put poor families in more debt. Don’t add a layer of shame to kids who don’t deserve it. Because I can promise you this: They’ll remember.

Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.