Feeding our Future, One School at a Time

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Are school lunch programs an expendable option for budget cuts or are they an essential element for educating the next generation?

In 2001, I remarried and moved to Atlanta from Chicago, leaving my job behind. When I married Steve, our joint family included my three sons, ages 20, 18 and 12 and his four sons, ages 14, 12, and 6-year-old twins. I spent the first couple of years in Georgia in a college classroom as I finished up a long-delayed bachelor’s degree. Holding only my freshly-minted diploma in the summer of 2004, I hunkered down to the critical task of finding a job.

Those two years when I was in school and not contributing to the family income were rough, to say the least. Have you ever tried to feed seven boys? My grocery trips were not pretty sites as I struggled to feed our growing tribe. Since five of the boys were in school, we reluctantly turned to the federal lunch program to supplement our family budget, which was below the poverty line.

To let you know how bad our income was in 2002, the federal poverty level for a family of nine was $33,500. It took a lot of stress to make us look to the federal government, but we finally succumbed with the intent to stop using it as soon as possible. No one wants to be “beholden” to the government. It’s a demeaning and frustrating process to apply for food stamps, or welfare, or aid for dependent children. The government doesn’t make it easy.

And, then there’s the shame factor. Our three high schoolers were ashamed of the fact that they had a different lunch card than the other “paying” students. We had our students on this program for a year, until I found a job, but it was a tough year for us.

What happened to us in 2002 has now spread across the country. A recent Associated Press headline reported that 60 percent of Georgia public school kids receive the free or reduced-price federal lunch program.  “An additional 47,000 students have enrolled in the past five years…”

This is the tip of the iceberg of pressure being applied to those least able to afford it, the children of America. My sister was a principal in an inner city elementary in the industrial north and of the 600 plus children enrolled in her school 92 percent of them were on the free- or reduced- lunch program. A few of her kids were living in homeless shelters and coming to school.

Nationally, there are a lot of children helped by this program. According to figures issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  “In 2004, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) served an average of 29 million lunches daily, at a Federal cost of $7.6 billion.”

The USDA’s recent research revealed the characteristics of the typical child helped by the school lunch program:

  • Recipients are evenly divided among White, African-American and Hispanics.
  • Two-thirds of the children participating are from female-headed households.
  • The biggest concentration of use was with children aged 8-13.
  • Many of the children enrolled at school were also participants in the Food Stamp program.

Since we’re in a federal fiscal crisis many in Congress are now looking at ways to cut budgets. There have been presidential candidates who’ve advocated cutting the food stamp program, for example. Many people mistakenly feel that there is rampant fraud in the food stamp and school lunch programs, however, both of these are closely monitored.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities,

“To ensure that benefits are provided only to eligible households and in the proper amounts, SNAP has one of the most rigorous quality control systems of any public benefit program and, in recent years, has achieved its lowest error rates on record. In fiscal year 2009, even as caseloads were rising, states set new record lows for error rates. The net loss due to errors equaled only 2.7 percent of program costs in 2009. There is no evidence that program errors are driving up SNAP spending.”

The school lunch program began in 1946 during the Truman administration to increase national security. He realized this after many young men were rejected during the World War II draft because of issues related to childhood malnutrition. The program was extended by President Lyndon Johnson when he began having schools also offer a breakfast for needy school children. Like many people Johnson believed that school performance was directly related to a good breakfast. Since there was such a need for a meals program during the school year, a summer meals program began to be offered to low-income children beginning in 1968. Even if a child is not enrolled in summer school, the summer meals are available to them.

One of the issues we still need to resolve is the stigma children, especially older teens, feel when they need to depend upon the school lunch program. This program, like many in the schools, is on the front lines as America struggles to control childhood obesity.

Luanne Rohde, an elementary school principal in Wisconsin, has served in schools where 92 percent of the student body was enrolled in the lunch program. “I served in inner city schools where some of the population was homeless and living in shelters. Without the ability to provide healthy meals and snacks for my students learning was much more difficult. In order to learn students’ basic needs must be met. Being hungry is a basic need that is not being met. Children who are struggling with homelessness, poverty and other issues have less energy to concentrate on school. I’m glad I have the chance to provide my students with a healthy breakfast and lunch while they’re at school.”



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