Categories: Editorial, OpinionWhen we think of childhood hunger, we usually think of famine-stricken countries abroad or our own industrial-era past.But even in 2018, one in five American children lives in a “food insecure” household — i.e., where the USDA says “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources.”This doesn’t mean that 20 percent of children in America are literally starving to death.But kids don’t need to be emaciated to suffer the effects of long-term malnutrition.When kids lack proper meals, it doesn’t just mean an uncomfortable day. It negatively impacts their ability to learn in school. Cognition, retention, test scores, classroom focus and attendance are all demonstrably affected by childhood hunger.Fortunately, there are options for “food insecure” kids.Families meeting certain criteria (e.g., whose income is below 133 percent of the poverty line) are able to apply for subsidized free or reduced-price (F/RP) meals. Sixty-two percent of public-school students qualify.Unfortunately, many kids still fall through the gaps.Of the 1.39 million children in New York who qualified for F/RP meals in 2015–16, about 1.06 million participated in the lunch program and just 484,000 participated in breakfast.Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken note, proposing the “No Student Goes Hungry” program, which addresses the enrollment gap in a number of ways and generally improves mealtime at school.First, it ends “lunch shaming,” a perverse Dickensian practice where schools torment kids with wristbands, chores or cold meals for getting F/RP meals or racking up meal debts. Sure, it’s nice to believe that success is just a factor of effort and personal responsibility. And nobody wants to create lazy people who are dependent on handouts.But children are already dependents.Whatever you think of adults on government assistance, kids are not welfare queens suffering from moral failure. There are no “sins of the father” when it comes to school lunch.Poor kids often already grow up in comparatively substandard and unsafe schools and neighborhoods. They lack the networking opportunities and mentoring, tutoring and parenting time that their wealthy classmates enjoy.Giving all students a good meal is the least we can do to give poor kids a fair shot.Steve Keller is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.More from The Daily Gazette:EDITORIAL: Find a way to get family members into nursing homesFoss: Should main downtown branch of the Schenectady County Public Library reopen?EDITORIAL: Urgent: Today is the last day to complete the censusEDITORIAL: Thruway tax unfair to working motoristsEDITORIAL: Beware of voter intimidation Second, it requires many schools to provide breakfast during school hours instead of before the bell.These kinds of in-classroom meal programs have been shown to dramatically increase participation in F/RP breakfast, meaning more kids start the day with full bellies.Third, it increases funding for vending machines and coolers — as well as the Farm to School program, which stocks schools with healthy, local food.This is all good, and we should support it.But it’s really just tinkering around the edges.Our state should do what New York City has already done: Offer free meals to all students.While ending school-sponsored lunch shaming certainly mitigates the embarrassment of poverty at mealtime, we can’t force the stigma discouraging kids from getting F/RP meals out of existence. Only a policy of free meals for all can make it completely obsolete.By making meals universal instead of a unique handout, this particular resentment towards poor kids would disappear.Free meals for all would also eliminate the meal debt problem. If meals are free for everyone, kids whose families are just barely above the eligibility line wouldn’t have to risk skipping lunch or incurring meal debts.Importantly, no child would go without food because of their parents’ ignorance of the program, negligence in applying, or even abuse and neglect.This seems an obvious policy to me. But I suppose there are counterarguments.If you’re hesitant about expanding government programs, remember that nobody would actually be forced to eat school meals — they’d be free to opt in only if they wanted.If it turns out all of those eligible kids are unenrolled because their families are just fine without the school’s help, this policy won’t make much of a difference at all. We all know the tired maxim that “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”In this case, the federal government is likely to bear most of this (relatively small) cost because of the way reimbursements already work.Adding to the deficit is controversial, but if you think that’s “borrowing from our kids’ futures,” consider the child whose future will be impacted by an empty stomach today.Aren’t there charities that help with this?There are. And there’s even a movement afoot to help families pay off their meal debts to school districts.But while charity is nice, getting a meal as a kid shouldn’t be contingent on the willy-nilly goodwill of others.Here’s what it comes down to: Do we believe the old philosophy of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” applies to kids too? Or do kids deserve a fair shot regardless of their station in life?