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Select North Hamilton schools offer free meals for all students

“Lunch money” will be a term of the past for students at 47 Hamilton County schools this fall, thanks to a federal program that covers the cost of all students’ breakfasts and lunches in select schools, regardless of family incomes.

North Hamilton schools receiving free meals are Allen, Alpine Crest, Daisy, DuPont, Falling Water, North Hamilton, Hixson, Red Bank and Soddy-Daisy Elementary; Hixson and Soddy-Daisy Middle; and Hixson High.

“I’m really excited about the program,” said Haley Brown, principal of Red Bank Elementary, where 83 percent of students were already receiving free or reduced-price lunches. “I think it will reduce a lot of extra added stress.”

Brown said she is excited about how the program will affect the management of the school day since kindergarteners will no longer need to remember a six-digit lunch number. Parents accustomed to receiving repeated calls about overdue lunch fees will also be more likely to answer the school’s calls.

Free meals for everyone levels the playing field when it comes to breakfast and lunch, she said.

“Now all kids are entitled to the same thing,” said Brown.

But not everyone is as pleased with the new program as she is.

District 3 School Board Representative Greg Martin, who represents the Hixson area, feels like the federal government should have come up with a better solution to help those in need.

“What I think would be a better program is if they would have taken the poverty line and raised that and helped more needy people,” he said. “My biggest problem is that the federal government has chosen some people to be winners and some people to be losers instead of helping the needy.”

Martin said he has spoken to several parents from McConnell Elementary and Loftis Middle who wanted to know how to get their school on the “winners” list when it comes to the new program. Local representatives had no say in which schools were chosen to receive free lunches, he added.

He also spoke to a woman with a child at McConnell who was just $12 above the cut-off for reduced-price lunch. These are the people who should be receiving government assistance, said Martin.

The children of high-income people who live on the ridge will receive free lunches at Hixson High while mothers like these struggle to pay for lunch, he said.

“The federal government could have done a better job of taking care of the working class if it had raised the bar,” said Martin.

He also worries that if the government decides not to renew the grant when it expires in four years, students will be conditioned to having meals provided for them.

District 2 School Board Representative Jonathan Welch, who represents Red Bank and Rivermont, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I think it’s a good thing to try and see what the benefits are,” he said, adding that the county has the option of opting out of the program after this year. “It’s one less thing for some of the families to worry about and the school itself to worry about. In this case I hope it will work as well as we think it will.”

District 1 School Board Representative Rhonda Thurman, who represents Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek, said the program is “just another government entitlement.”

“This just gives the government more control over the school system, which we don’t need,” she said. “We should be able to control that at the local level.”

She said the school system recently voted to increase lunch prices for everyone else, mainly because of new government-mandated nutrition requirements.

“I don’t want any children to go hungry,” said Thurman, who along with Martin worries what may happen if the government quits providing the funds for the program or changes the formula by which it chooses schools to receive free lunches. “Parents are going to pitch a fit, and then we’ll have to take money out of our education budget to pay for it.”