COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — The Child Food and Nutrition Services Study Committee is exploring the feasibility of providing free school meals to every K-12 student across the state.

They met this week to discuss the potential benefits and costs of this initative.

According to an estimate by the state Department of Education, it could cost up to $60 million a year to implement universal free school meals. However, the estimate is anticipated to be refined in November, with expectations of a decrease in cost as eligibility criteria was expanded for students qualifying for federal reimbursements recently.

Earlier this year, legislation was filed in the Senate that would guarantee free meals for K-12 students in the state. The legislation did not receive a hearing but could be revisited in the upcoming legislation session.

Right now, free school meals are available to students who meet income-based eligibility criteria. Schools have the option to participate in a federal reimbursement program that provides free meals to all students if a certain percentage of their students qualify for free or reduced meals. Officials said nearly 1,000 schools in South Carolina are participating in this program this school year.

Advocates for this initiative, including Dr. Elizabeth Mack, a pediatric critical care physician and President of the South Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, argue that this is about more than just providing meals; it’s about improving the overall health of South Carolina’s students.

“I see it as a moral imperative for sure,” Dr. Mack said to the committee.

The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily altered the landscape of school meal programs across the country. During this time, free meals were extended to all students by the federal government.

Emily Mayer, a former public school teacher, also shared her experience with the committee.

“My classroom was overall a more joyous space for my learners. We started each day together enjoying a meal, which allowed us to quickly transition into our academic content,” she said.

Advocates argue that providing universal free school meals could have a profound impact on children and their families both inside and outside of the classroom. Hafeezah Yates, State Manager of Save the Children-South Carolina believes that “offering free meals to all students changes the culture of the cafeteria, increases participation, and makes the cafeteria a real positive environment for all students.”

The recommendations from the Child Food and Nutrition Services Study Committee are expected to be delivered to the General Assembly by January 2024.