Subtitle: a story told through experiences
I once worked in a child care center that served several programs for low income families. Some of our kids had parents in prison. Some children were in foster care. A fair number were living in what we called “risky homes” – families where abuse and neglect happened, but not severely enough to remove them from the home.
These children were hungry. On Monday mornings, they dug into their breakfasts like they hadn’t eaten in days – and sometimes that was precisely the case. We planned our Monday morning meal accordingly – often oatmeal, because it was inexpensive, nutritious, and filling.
Fast forward several years to my first teaching job, in which I learned about free and reduced lunch. One indicator of the importance of this program showed on half days – those days that dismissed students before lunch and had meetings and training sessions in the afternoon. Attendance was weak, very weak, on days that the school did not serve lunch.
Fast forward again, same school, same neighborhood, same large number of low-income families. Our school meals program earned a grant to provide Grab and Go lunches on half days. These were essentially bag lunches with a sandwich and fruit and a small juice box or milk. Do you see where I’m going? Half day attendance picked up in a big, big way. Kids who straggled in late would greet me with “Can I still order lunch?”
I learned even more as I became aware of the McKinney-Vento Act, a program for homeless students. When a family becomes eligible for services through McKinney-Vento, one of the first things that happens is automatic free breakfast and lunch. The family doesn’t need to jump through the usual paperwork hoops required to qualify for free or reduced meals. When a family’s housing is insecure, schools make sure that the students in that family have at least two meals a day.
I’m not quoting numbers or dry statistics, my friends. I’m speaking from my own experiences. Now imagine: if this is my experience, in a relatively stable community like Happy Valley, the need that we label “food security” must be even more widespread in inner cities and poor rural areas.
And in Betsy DeVos’ experience? I’ll rephrase that. Betsy DeVos, the completely unqualified Secretary of Education, has no relevant experience. She has no idea how important free and reduced meals can be for families. She has no idea how feeding a child makes it possible for that child to grow, to feel safe, and ultimately, to learn.
Free meals matter. That’s the bottom line.