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At Rapid City Central High School, for the first time ever, lunch is free at the school's cafeteria.

The Rapid City school district took an important step this school year that could benefit the community for years to come.

It expanded its use of the federal government’s Community Eligibility Provision program, which puts hot meals into the stomachs of hungry children. The district now serves free lunches to all students at nine schools, including Central, the second largest high school in the state. Overall, around 5,000 of the district’s nearly 14,000 students can get a free breakfast and lunch at six elementary and two middle schools as well as Central.

The benefits are obvious and costs minimal, especially when you consider the stakes — the future for generations of children whose potential has yet to be fully tapped. If their learning experiences are not nurtured, however, the consequences could cost society far more than is now being spent for breakfast or lunch.

The detractors suggest the program that fed around eight million children at more than 18,000 schools in 2016 is a waste of taxpayers’ money. The sentiment is reflected by a Two Cents comment that said: “As a taxpayer paying for those free meals, I do not believe that it is my responsibility to feed your children.”

For some perspective, the war in Afghanistan costs taxpayers around $45 billion a year; the Community Eligibility Provision program costs around $15 billion a year and served eight billion meals in 2016. The federal budget is $4 trillion.

But this program is about more than just dollars. It also makes sense when one looks at the big picture, which the Rapid City school district has done.

Rapid City has many low-income residents who are eligible for food stamps, which qualifies the schools for the program. According to the school district, 600 students are considered homeless. For these and other students in the district, the free breakfast and lunch program often provides the only hot meals they may get in a day. It’s a sad fact of life that so many live in poverty in Rapid City. It is not, however, the students' fault. They do need help though escaping the devastating cycle of poverty.

Studies point out that children who grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods are much more likely to fail in school and develop a bevy of social and health problems that will certainly cost the taxpayers much more in the long run. We see it here where public safety budgets continue to grow to handle the consequences of poverty and elected officials must consider raising taxes to pay for jails, courts, detox programs, probation and parole programs, and indigent health care costs that impact every health-care consumer.

The school district as well as the supporters of the free lunch program — which is available to all students in those schools in order to reduce red tape and eliminate the shame of accepting the assistance — see this program as an investment in youth who need to be educated and motivated to be the kind of citizens this community needs, or we pay a steeper price later.

How much of an investment is this? The school district charges $2.50 for lunch at elementary schools, $2.95 at middle schools and $3.05 at the high schools.

The need for the program is evident every day, according to Katy Urban, spokesperson for the school district. Last school year when Central was not part of the program, the district served lunch there to around 975 students a day. So far this year, it has jumped to around 1,200 a day. Breakfast servings have increased from 95 to 200 a day.

"That shows kids are hungry," said Urban, who added that the program "is not a financial burden" for the district.

Hungry students aren't going to do well in school and if that happens there is a good chance they will impose a lifetime of burdens on taxpayers. As a society, we have always been obligated to invest in our children. It's in our best interests after all. This program benefits students as well as taxpayers now and in the long run.

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