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Schools should embrace free-lunch programs

Boston Public Schools students got some good news about lunchtime last week: The school system has joined an experimental US Department of Agriculture program that provides free lunch for all students — on the federal government’s tab — regardless of whether their families can afford to pay. A high percentage of Boston students already qualify for free or deeply reduced school lunches. But many haven’t taken advantage of the program, perhaps because their parents had trouble navigating the paperwork or felt stigmatized by having to disclose their incomes. The new program joins Boston’s policy of offering universal free breakfast. And it could spare the district the difficulty of chasing hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid lunch bills; currently, schools give kids food even if their parents don’t keep up with their payments. School officials will need to take extra care to make sure crowded lunch lines move quickly and all students have time to eat. But the value of universal lunch is clear: a greater likelihood that kids will be ready to learn.

Boston’s news came on the heels of a less encouraging national development on the school lunch front. A few districts across the country have opted out of the National School Lunch Program altogether, saying their students were refusing to buy lunches that met the new, healthier standards. The federal program might well need some tweaking; one valid concern is that the program restricts the amount of protein in lunches every week, ruling out some kid favorites, such as chicken patties, that could easily be cooked in healthy ways. But in general, school systems should be willing to put time and effort into creating healthy lunches that are still appealing. Boston offers a good model for approaching school lunch: understanding the challenges that keep kids from eating well, and finding ways to make healthy lunch accessible to all.