Children in charter schools shouldn’t go hungry
A heartbreaking story of the seven-year-old girl in Texas has gone viral. During a class exercise in which she and her classmates were told to write a letter to Santa, Crystal Pacheco listed two wants: food and a ball; and one need: a blanket.
When asked by her teacher why she said she “wanted” rather than “needed” food, she replied “‘Well, I get to eat at school — sometimes I may not have [food] at home, but I get to eat at school. A blanket I have one, but it’s not warm enough.’”
Crystal’s school in South Texas, like many other public schools throughout the country provide free breakfast and lunch each day to students who qualify. At Monte Cristo Elementary, that amounts to 93 percent of the students.
But not all public schools provide free meals for their hungry students. Alarmingly, only three states, Delaware, Ohio and Texas (and the District of Columbia) include language that specifically requires charter schools, which are public, to provide meals for students who live at or below the poverty line.
While the purpose of charter schools continues to be a matter of debate, no argument suggests that certain groups of students should be excluded. To choose a charter school is to choose a public school which, by law, is obligated to serve all students.
Given what we know about the deleterious effects of hunger on learning, it seems like a no-brainer that all schools, at least public ones, would be legally obligated to provide free or reduced-priced meals to their most vulnerable students. Unfortunately, this is far from the case.
A 2015-2016 state-by-state report of school meals legislation, published by the Food Research and Action Center depicts a highly inconsistent approach to how and if schools provide meals to students who cannot afford to eat.
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is among the largest programs designed to offset the negative impacts of hunger on school-age children by providing low cost or free meals to over 30 million children who qualify. The ambitious goals of the program, however, do not come without their share of headaches.
A 2016 report by the Niskanen Center described the national lunch program as a “case study in the inefficiency of in-kind federal programs and the micromanaging bureaucracies that come with them.” In fact, some states, like California and Arizona, exempt charter schools from their state laws regarding school meals for this very reason, claiming that the bureaucratic demands of the program would hinder charter schools, especially small ones, from acting as the hotbeds of innovation they were intended to be.
But small public charter schools acting as labs of innovation have the responsibility to innovate in the name of all students, regardless of socioeconomic status. That, again, is what makes them public.
A report by Feed America shows a strong link between food insecurity and children’s learning. Poor nutrition and hunger have been shown to have a negative impact not only on a child’s physical growth and development, but on cognitive development and social-emotional health as well.
Food insecurity has also been associated with increased stress levels in children, which may ultimately lead to behavioral issues. According to a policy brief by No Kid Hungry, children who lack adequate food tend to have higher incidence of suspensions, higher dropout rates.
At my small charter school in Tucson, Arizona, we serve breakfast and lunch to all students who qualify. This is no easy task given our size, but the desire to open our own school came with a deep commitment and obligation to be inclusive of all students. In Arizona, close to 60 percent of school-age children qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch. Without our participation in the national lunch program, we would not be able to truly serve the public.
Several of our students, like so many young people living with food insecurity, rely almost exclusively on the meals they receive from their public schools. One student, a 16-year-old, told me “I was always hungry when I was a kid. My foster mom was weird about food — by law, she was supposed to cook for me, but sometimes I would get home late after basketball practice and there wasn’t anything to eat. The food I got at school was the only food I could count on. I couldn’t afford anything else. “
Current policy regarding which schools are required to provide meals for poor students is left entirely up to the states. This needs to change.
Despite the extremely limited role that the U.S. Department of Education plays when it comes to setting educational policy, there are plenty of ways in which this agency already informs the day-to-day realities of public schools.
Most public educators like myself might be happier without some of this intervention, especially when it comes to testing. Nevertheless, the Department of Education should extend its reach just a little bit further and require that all public schools, district as well as charter, are held accountable for not only meeting and reporting on academic standards, but for ensuring that every student has what they need in order to have a fair shot in the first place. This should include meals for students who cannot afford to eat.
This piece was originally written for The Hill in December 2017.
May 21, 2019
Posted in: Nourish