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Hemelt: Free meals for kids, EBT remark rile up emotions

You’re going to have a debate on your hands if the subject includes tax money combined with something that can be perceived as a handout.

Such was the case last week when L’OBSERVATEUR published a story about what free meal options were available to youth in the next few weeks as part of the Summer Food Service Program in St. John the Baptist, St. James and St. Charles Parishes.

The program was created by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure children in lower-income areas would continue receiving healthy meals during the summer when those meals were no longer available through school.

Children in St. John Parish who are eligible for enrollment in public and private schools are welcome to participate in the meals program, regardless of their home income level.

“I’m all for feeding hungry children, but their parents (and I use that term loosely) already receive tax dollars for this,” a reader at L’OBSERVATEUR’s Facebook page posted. “Each child fed should result in a pro-rated amount deducted from the parent’s EBT card.”

The assertion’s logic is simple. Many single parents and down-on-their-luck families already receiving government assistance shouldn’t need more money funneled at a different location to feed their children.

I certainly believe in that logic, but at the same time, a child living in this country should never be denied a meal because their caretakers aren’t on the ball financially.

In Louisiana, EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer. The Louisiana EBT Card is called the Louisiana Purchase Card.

It works like a debit card and can hold funds associated with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and/or cash benefits that are deposited directly from state or federal sources.

Dropping an “EBT card” reference is sure to draw attention to a discussion, and one Facebook responder was quick to defend the free meals program.

“What about the ones that don’t get EBT cards?” another reader shared. “I see all kinds of children attend these lunches. Some of these children go there for a nutritious meal and socialization. These kids are feeling some kind of self worth and meaning to these lunches. Lots of families can’t always afford to send their children to summer camp or don’t qualify for the grants that are given. So, this reaches all levels of financial needs and not just the EBT families. I would rather feed a child and nurture them than to put a LABEL on them because of their family’s financial situation. Have some compassion sometimes for someone, and you might see the world in a better light.”

It was an emotional response for what, for many, is an emotional topic.

Eventually the debate ended with the first poster stressing it’s a parent’s responsibility to care for and feed their children, while stressing
double-dipping on federal programs is abuse.

That was countered by the assertion that all children are eligible for the free meals, and by simply using the EBT reference, a negative sheen was cast on any child taking advantage of the free meals program.

The effort started Wednesday in St. John, and, according to local officials, meals are being served for six weeks, Monday through Thursday.

Breakfast is served at East St. John Elementary School. Lunch is served at East St. John Elementary, Garyville/Mt. Airy Math and Science School, West St. John High and LaPlace Elementary School.

For more information on meals in St. John, call 985-536-4955.

My philosophy is pretty simple on this issue. When it comes to my tax dollars, spending them to the benefit of local children is always a positive expenditure.

Yet, my eyes are wide open to the reality that some parents will use this service as a chance to avoid spending EBT funds on their own children, instead wasting our tax dollars on all things imaginable.

Those people are deadbeats, but we can’t let the negative intentions of a few get in the way of what is a hot and available meal for area children. No one should go hungry in this country.

Stephen Hemelt is general manager and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.