COLUMBIA, S.C. — Free breakfast and lunches in all South Carolina Public Schools could be a reality next year under a proposed bill prefiled ahead of the upcoming legislative session.
63% of students qualified for free or reduced lunches in the 2019-2020 school year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
"We don't want our kids to be hungry, we want kids to learn. We want them to be healthy," said Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington).
Shealy has pre-filed a bill that would provide universal free meals in all South Carolina public schools.
At least 500 schools, which is about half in state, provide free meals for all students through the USDA's Community Eligibility Provision (CEP).
Fairfield County School District is one of them.
"No one knows the different between who is free, who is reduced and who is fully paid," said Superintendent Dr. J.R. Green.
Green said the district has participated in the program since 2016.
"It has been an absolute godsend not to have to worry about first of all chasing students around for applications and secondly being able to provide that benefit to every student in the district," said Green.
However, not all eligible schools go through the process of applying for free meals for every student.
Shealy said they are calculating how much the bill would cost per year.
If approved, it would also require schools to provide a 30-minute lunch period for all students.
So far, Colorado, California, Maine, and Vermont have passed laws to continue providing free meals once all waivers end in June 2023, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
According to the Education Data Initiative, in 2021 about 40,000 South Carolina students had meal debt, averaging $168.42 per student.
Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a ban on school districts using debt collectors to track down students and families with unpaid meal debts.
Senators will be able to take up this bill and other pre-filed legislation when the new legislative starts January 10.