HILLSBORO – Justin Welch, principal of McKinney elementary school here, has been through this before.
“I spent a lot of my time at my last school in Utah tracking down families who owed lunch money,” he recalls, not exactly nostalgically.
“What a waste of my time.”
Only if you think principals could be focused on, you know, education.
Welch has been able to think about education more lately because of a change in the school lunch rules in 2010, allowing schools with at least 40 percent of their students on food stamps or Medicaid to serve everybody free lunch. (Lots of the remaining kids would qualify for free lunch by family income, or lack thereof.) Community eligibility might cost a few nickels that the school might have collected – probably, very few – but it allows principals, and other folks at the school, to think more about math and less about chicken fingers.
It also makes sure that kids whose parents aren’t great at paperwork don’t flunk lunch and breakfast – a problem that can spread to other subjects.
But in the current reauthorization of children’s nutrition programs – already a year late – the Republican majority of the House Education and Workforce Committee has another idea. In a party-line vote late last month, they endorsed a reauthorization that would raise the community eligibility requirement to a hard-to-reach 60 percent. That would mean that McKinney – and more than 150 other Oregon schools, and 7,000 across the country – would no longer qualify, and that Justin Welch would be back to worrying about whose family had and hadn’t paid for beefaroni.
“Having all of our students able to access healthy food for breakfast and lunch insures that they can be successful,” says Welch. “So many of our students don’t have their needs met at home. At least when they’re here, we can say we know they’ve got food in their bellies.”
McKinney, a modern, well-kept school in a pleasant neighborhood, doesn’t look like what you’d consider a high-poverty school. But in the way we’ve arranged our society – children on the bottom – 80 percent of its students would qualify for a break on school lunch costs.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici represents McKinney school in Congress and on the House education committee, where she joined all the other Democrats in voting against the Republican measure. “It’s totally unacceptable,” she said last week. “There are still too many kids hungry.”
Bonamici visited Mckinney this spring, and talked with students about what the lunch program meant to them. It made her curious why “My colleagues are so alarmed that a student who might be able to afford lunch might get one for free.” She even wonders why House members who just cheerfully passed a $600 billion military budget are so concerned about the source of each kid’s turkey hot dog.
There are some other problems with the reauthorization backed by the Republican committee members, reasons why it’s opposed by 750 organizations across the country, from the national PTA to the Newman United Methodist Women in Grants Pass. There are reasons why the Food Research Action Center in D.C. calls it a “hodge-podge of bad ideas (that) would roll back years of progress in the fight against childhood hunger.”
The reauthorization sets up a pilot program for three states that would roll all the school nutrition programs into an underfunded block grant to the state. Governors and legislators could then ignore nutritional advances made in the 2010 reauthorization, and find strategies to save money on kids’ lunches they could spend in other ways.
It also caps and discourages a successful pilot program, tried last summer in Oregon and five other states, providing $30 a month in food stamps for free lunch kids in summer, when the lack of school meals can leave them in stomach-growling condition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that the program cut summer child hunger by a third, a dam of sandwiches and fruit.
With luck, none of this will matter. Bonamici points out that this House of Representatives has trouble finding votes to actually pass anything, and the Senate is backing a much better version, promising at least a more nourishing conference committee. But with as many as a fifth of our kids living in food insecurity, we’re also missing a once-every-five-years chance to improve the situation, and we may be making it worse.’
“Last November, I told the kindergarten families that the meals were covered,” remembers Justin Welch, “and they broke into applause.”
The House education committee may not get much applause.
In fact, people may be throwing fish sticks.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/5/16.