School_Lunch_Programs

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows a school or district to provide free lunch and breakfast to all students when 40 percent or more of its student body is found to be food insecure: they live in homes that receive food stamps, live in foster care, are homeless, or other criteria that identifies them as food vulnerable. The CEP is widely praised by educators and others for lowering administrative costs and feeding more hungry kids.

Yet the House subcommittee that oversees school nutrition programs has introduced a bill that would raise the threshold for schools and districts to qualify for the program. An analysis shows that some 7,000 high-poverty schools would be affected–forcing these schools to shift limited resources to managing paperwork and disrupting access to breakfast and lunch for low-income students.

Yes, hunger impairs school performance. Yes, school breakfast and school lunch can stave off hunger for impoverished children. And we never talk about why affluent children need to eat. It’s a given. Perhaps because eating is a basic human function. This week in The Atlantic I look at the political gamesmanship over something as basic as feeding hungry children.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the proposed bill are educators who live in Indiana, the home state of the bill’s author. The Republican Congressman Todd Rokita, who chairs the subcommittee that introduced the bill, represents an area in Indiana where nearly 34,000 children were rated “food insecure”—living in a household with limited or uncertain access to adequate food—according to the latest data from Feeding America.

The disconnect between politics and policy seems most glaring in the one aspect of school meals that is hardest to measure: the widespread stigma that students and families often attach to free meals at school. Morris C. Leis, the superintendent of Coffee County Schools in south central Georgia, said that community eligibility allows the district to serve free breakfast and lunch to over 6,400 kids—84 percent of the entire student population—but with the proposed change, six schools would be unable to participate, affecting some 3,800 children. A racially and ethnically diverse district, 28 percent of his community lives at or below the federal poverty level. “Coffee County has many [families] living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “For some students, the meals they eat at school may be the only meals they get during the day or even on the weekend.”

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In December, just days before Christmas, an Idaho cafeteria worker was fired for giving a free hot lunch to a 12-year-old student who was hungry but didn’t have money to pay for her school meal. After the story went viral, the lunch lady was rehired. This story—along with several cases of schools tossing kids’ lunches for nonpayment—prompted me to take a closer look at how districts handle students who don’t have the money to pay for school breakfast and lunch.

A debate on school nutrition—trading pizza, fries, and cookies for whole grains, fruits and vegetables—has raged for years, while a parallel debate has gone somewhat unnoticed and unaddressed: What should be the consequence for children with delinquent school-meal accounts? While the most pressing issue in some school cafeterias is students tossing healthier school lunches in the trash, in others it is school employees dumping children’s lunches in the trash for nonpayment. And the result is hungry children, stunned parents, and increasing questions about how school districts handle overdue payments.

The notion of taking children’s lunches away and throwing them in the trash—in some cases, in front of the child and their peers—angers parents and exposes school officials to scorn. But behind the outrage lurks a larger issue. Survey data from the advocacy group School Nutrition Association shows that overdrawn lunch accounts create real financial challenges for school districts, forced to weigh mounting costs against unsatisfied students and families.

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(Photo: Berkeley Unified School District)