While Trump weekends at Mar-a-Lago, his administration wants to cut school meals, which for many kids—like the author, when she was growing up—is their primary source of sustenance.
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I was still in preschool when Republican President Ronald Reagan infamously suggested that ketchup be considered a vegetable in order to cut funding to the federal school lunch program. The rule never passed, something dozens of children like me would be grateful for as we slogged our plastic trays of food to the fold-down tables that transformed the gymnasium/auditorium into the cafeteria twice a day, every school day, for my six years of elementary school.
I was a federal lunch program kid for my first few years of school, a fact that I could easily hide from classmates by the pre-paid lunch ticket that was punched every day by a cashier at a small school desk before I entered the food line. I could have had free breakfast, too, but I didn’t. Even at age 6 I knew that only the poor kids ate breakfast at school, and the bowl of oatmeal in the morning would be followed by teasing all day long. Lunches were anonymous: No one could tell the free lunch tickets from the ones the parents pre-bought. Lunch was safe, breakfast was not.
Now, over 30 years later, my three children almost always eat breakfast in the elementary school cafeteria. We are a solidly middle-class family, and we are lucky enough to have no worries about food insecurity. For the most part, if our children go hungry it’s by their own choice, a refusal to eat what is served, a desire to sleep a little longer in the morning and not because there isn’t enough to eat at home. They enjoy the school breakfasts, the waffle sticks or a type of cereal that I never think to buy, or the school oranges they are convinced somehow taste better than the ones I have in the fruit bin at home.
They have no clue that some of the other children eating with them don’t have three different flavors of Mini-Wheats at home in the pantry, or all of the ingredients for a pot of steal-cut oatmeal if they’d just let me know in time to cook for them. They think that everyone else in the cafeteria before school is just like them, all of them there just because they are enjoying a small slice of independence, picking their own breakfasts without parental approval, maybe sneaking some extra syrup or the apple juice we never have at home. The school offers free breakfast for everyone for just that reason—if everyone can be fed with no social hierarchy or stigma, they can guarantee that everyone will eat.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in six children currently live in food-insecure homes—meaning that they lack the financial resources to ensure that every family member has adequate and nutritious enough food to stave off hunger. For some families that means skipping meals, or buying cheaper, low quality, non-nutritious food simply to get stomachs as full as possible. It’s believed that approximately 13 million children live in these households, and of those children living in food insecure households, about 20 percent still earn too much to receive any sort of federal or state food assistance through SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), WIC (Women Infants and Children), or other food programs. About 85 percent of those living in food insecure households have an adult who holds a job. It’s simply that with stagnant wages, rising housing costs, increased medical expenses, and overwhelming debt, healthy and abundant food becomes expendable instead of a staple.
In our own school in Minneapolis, the administration does as much as it can to ensure that no student go hungry. At the beginning of each school year, families received a note telling them to contact the school if they were food insecure. The school would then arrange to send a nondescript brown sack in their student’s backpack once a week, filled with staples that could supplement and help the family stretch their grocery budget. And for a few years, local organizations participated in a healthy snack program, too. Every day students would get a fruit or vegetable snack—sliced apples, banana chips, carrots with ranch dip—a means of introducing them to better foods and help get more vitamins to students who may not get much, if any, fresh produce at home.
The healthy snack program ended last year after incomes in the district increased to the point where there were no longer enough students qualifying for free or reduced lunches. Ironically, that was the moment that we as a family started to really understand the effect that hunger has on a student’s ability to learn. That student? My daughter.
She’s always been at the top of her class, and was the rare student who loved school more than she ever enjoyed being at home. But when she started third grade, it was obvious that this time it was different. She was irritable, unhappy. She complained about being in trouble all of the time, something she’d never had an issue with before. All of the other kids in her class were getting disciplined, too. We wondered if she somehow ended up in a class full of troublemakers—maybe she’d always been one too and we just didn’t know? Or maybe her teacher was just far stricter than any we’d encountered before?
Her teacher was indeed stricter, but we eventually learned there was another problem, too. The school had grown so large that it had become impossible for more than one grade to eat in the cafeteria at a time. Even with the shortest of lunch times, students were scheduled from 11:20 a.m. until 1:40 p.m. My daughter’s class had drawn the last shift—and she was hungry. She would eat breakfast at home, another once she got to school, then still face four and a half hours before she would eat again. Her concentration—all of the children’s concentration—was shot. They were simply too hungry to pay attention to the teacher.
In previous years the healthy snack program addressed that, but now the funding was gone. Instead, parents were each asked to pick a week and bring in enough snack food to feed 30 students for one week. But unlike the healthy snack program, which was prepared and brought in fresh every day, our snacks had distinct parameters. They had to be nonperishable so they wouldn’t be dangerous if they sat out for a week or longer. They needed to be prepackaged. They couldn’t require utensils. There could be no preparation required since the teachers couldn’t take time from the classroom.
Essentially we had gone from apple slices and carrot dips to goldfish crackers and teddy grahams. And, if we run into a week that no parent has claimed, well, then it may be just two or three goldfish crackers each.
In a perfect world, every child has enough wholesome food to eat every day. Unfortunately, too many children can’t guarantee that at home, and school is the only place that we can make up for it. Offering healthy, substantive meal and snacks for everyone allows all students to eat without shame or stigma, which doesn’t just help those students learn but helps their classmates learn, too. Cutting school funding for food in before- and afterschool programs or reducing school breakfast and lunch budgets doesn’t just harm those students who use the services, it harms every student in every classroom, too.
There are a million different reasons a child may be hungry in the classroom, regardless of how “good” your school district is. From chronic poverty to temporary food insecurity to extended school days and bus schedules to overtaxed cafeterias, all students are likely to either experience or be affected by someone experiencing hunger in the classroom. With President Donald Trump seeing food assistance—whether it is given to school children or those who cannot leave their homes—as an expendable governmental expense, what gains school districts themselves have made to address this issue may very quickly disappear.
President Reagan was shamed out of his decision to classify ketchup as a vegetable in order to cut school lunch funding. Let’s hope President Donald Trump can be as effectively shamed out of slashing programs that feed hungry students, too.
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