We Don't Need a Superhero to Feed Our Kids
by Ted Miller
(originally published December 2019 in Tumbleweird)
No child should go hungry. And yet in the wealthiest nation in the world, six million children don’t know where their next meal will come from (source: usda.gov).
Childhood hunger is a perennial problem. The National School Lunch Act of 1946 and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 were enacted to help those in need, but 1 in 5 children today still go hungry.
Poverty and homelessness are a problem right here in our community. An unofficial survey recently noted that there are over 600 homeless children in the Tri-Cities. Many more live in poverty. Too many spend too many nights with empty stomachs.
We as a nation believe equal access to education is a fundamental American value, so public education is provided to all regardless of an ability to pay. We believe that an educated society is a better society, that education helps lift people up, that educated citizens make a better democracy. But when a child in school is hungry, they don’t really have an equal ability to learn.
Last month, Kennewick City Council member and business owner Steve Lee paid off all student lunch debt for Kennewick and Columbia School Districts. Following a Facebook post and local media coverage, Richland City Council member Phil Lemley made a donation toward the lunch debt in the Richland School District. That inspired a group of Richland friends to band together to eliminate the debt for those most in need. Richland School Board candidate Jay Clough recently donated the balance of his campaign funds toward student lunch debt. The generosity is commendable and well appreciated.
In following this story locally, I discovered how much misinformation there is about student nutrition programs. I suppose I thought all kids in need qualified for free or reduced meals and that no child in our town ever had to go hungry, but I really didn’t know much about this issue at all.
I sat down with Richland School District Nutrition Services Director Dawn Trumbull and staff member Julie Soderquist to find out more. Here are a few things I learned:
- The school nutrition program is funded separately from operating levies and other funds for education services
- Federal and state funds provide some assistance through the free and reduced meal programs, other students have to pay for the meals they eat
- Of the 14,000 students in the Richland School District, 40% of them are in the free or reduced program
- Six schools provide breakfast and lunch to all students because of the high percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced lunches; at other schools, students must qualify on an individual basis
- There are still many students who are unable to pay for reasons over which they have no control
- No student is turned away because of a lack of ability to pay, but their account goes into debt
- Washington State has a “no lunch shaming” policy, meaning students who can’t pay or whose accounts are in debt are not identified and receive the same meal as all other students
- There is an ongoing total student lunch debt that is thousands of dollars
So, what happens when a child’s account is in arrears and they need a lunch?
Sometimes a teacher or principal will pay out of their own pocket. In Richland, we also have a community supported Superhero Lunch Fund to help out.
Several years ago, local restaurant Hop Jacks (now Hops and Drops) wanted to donate a portion of their kid’s meals to school lunch programs. Combining that with other donations that periodically came in, the district created the Superhero Lunch Fund. Staff members are able to use Superhero funds to ensure every child receives a meal when they ask for it. In cases where the district determines the family is having difficulty and is unable to pay, the Superhero fund can be used to ease or eliminate that debt.
The recent donations inspired by Steve Lee and Phil Lemley were added to the Superhero fund. In addition to community members who have stepped up to help, other local businesses are pitching in. Tumbleweeds restaurant in Richland donates half of the sale of their new “cafeteria burrito” to the Superhero fund. Tommy’s Tap House and Bistro is now considering a program to help.
It is wonderful to see the community step up. But asking the community to fill in the need is only a temporary solution.
I believe that every student should start and end the school day without being hungry. The federal school lunch programs enacted in 1946 and expanded in 1966 should again be expanded to cover all students. Meals should be part of the cost of education just like books, computers, classrooms, and qualified teachers.
Last month, the Universal School Meals Program Act of 2019 was introduced in Congress (H. R. 4684 and S.2609). Critics say the cost is too expensive. But what is the cost to our children and our future when too many children attend school on an empty stomach?
We don’t need a superhero to solve the problem of childhood hunger, we just need to care enough to feed our children.