Here's what I think...All children, no matter race, creed, national origin, address, tax bracket or any other factor should have food to eat. No child should be left behind without a meal to eat at school.
Going hungry teaches desperation, heartbreak, bitterness and misunderstanding. Providing school lunches does not teach laziness, greed or a sense of entitlement; they are not handouts. Food is a basic necessity of life.
Children who are fed learn better, listen better and are happier, more focused and participate in class. Children who go hungry are cranky, listless, tired and poor students.
I'm not a dietician, a physician, a psychologist or a social worker. I'm a mom. This is common sense. Kids should have enough food to eat in the "greatest country in the world."
The Politics of Feeding Kids
Politics should not figure into this issue. Unfortunately, it has to if there is to be money to feed kids who do not have food at home to bring to school for lunch, and who more than likely will go without breakfast and snacks too.
Yes, there are programs for free and subsidized lunches, but there are limits regarding who is eligible for those programs. And in our economically depressed country, often the working poor are suffering greatly in reality, but on paper it appears that they are making the ends meet and therefore, do not qualify for these school lunch programs. Or perhaps these kids qualify for the reduced cost lunch program, but even that is just too much for the family. Or maybe there are language or cultural barriers or misunderstandings or miscommunications that cause kids who would qualify for these programs to never become enrolled and end up going without.
Turning Kids Away
Regardless of the situation of why kids are going hungry at school, the point is it is happening. According to a Star Tribune article, Legal Aid along with four Minneapolis law firms conducted a survey of the 182 school districts in Minnesota regarding school lunch policies and here is some of what they found:
"30 Minnesota school districts have some form of 'turn-away' policy, ranging from allowing the child a limited number of hot meals before stopping, to turning even the youngest grade-schoolers away immediately.
Seven districts stamp children's hands as a deterrent to nonpayment. One district issues a 'red card' after four unpaid lunches, while another issues 'purple tickets' for nonpayers.
One district brings a child into the kitchen where the hot lunch is taken away and exchanged for a bag lunch. Another takes the lunch tray away at the end of the line.
Diplomas are being withheld from some nonpaying high school seniors. Bill collectors are going after some of their parents."
According to a MPR article, about 20% of the school districts in MN have some form of turn-away policy.
The Star Tribune reports that Minneapolis, Anoka-Hennepin, Delano, Robbinsdale and Brainerd do provide hot lunches to their students whether the kids have the money to cover the cost or not while St. Paul offers a sandwich to non-paying kids.
Footing the Bill
There are bills moving through the Minnesota legislature that would expand the budget for free school lunches. According to the MPR article, Minnesota currently provides about 250,000 free lunches per school year. Advocates of this bill would like to increase that number by about 62,000.
This is not the first time such a bill has been introduced, but Jessica Webster of Legal Aid, who has been instrumental in putting together this information, getting the word out and gaining support for this issue, is more optimistic with the increased backing by key people.
Part of the problem is that school district budgets are already strapped. Where will the funds come from for these extra meals? Funding is a major concern for many school administrators and yet children going through the school days without enough food in their bellies should be equally vital concern for these administrators.
Sen. Sean Nienow, ranking minority member on the Senate Education Finance Committee, was quoted in MPR article as saying, "That may be tight, but most of those families probably can pitch in."
While this may be the case some of the time, with some of the families, he who has never been in such a situation does not know how very tight it can be on some days, some weeks or some months! When a parent must decide whether to pay the mortgage/rent or the electricity/gas or buy groceries or buy gas to be able to get to work and there is no wiggle room, that's a difficult, gut-wrenching, heartbreaking decision. We must be able to walk in another's shoes and see how the world looks when it's very dim with nowhere to turn in the immediate future.
And we must take care of our children; the children who will grow up and build and govern and create and have families and teach and guide and take care of each other. We focus on "no child left behind" and work to be sure that each child learns the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, but what about the basic necessities of being fed enough food and being nourished, body and soul.
I have contacted my school district's superintendant to inquire about the policies in my district. I hope you will do the same. Fortunately, there are some angel donors, teachers, principals, lunch room staff, etc. who take matters into their own hands, regardless of what school policy is and reach out to the children without and provide them with sustenance. And to those kind and generous souls I say thank you. But this is not enough. Minnesota, you can do better! Over and out...