Hungry Stomachs Can’t Be Hungry Minds: Meeting Our Students’ Most Pressing Needs First

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    In a recent press release, Fairfax County Public Schools announced its participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program. The school system’s embrace of the initiative, which provides nutritious food over the summer to students who qualify for free and reduced-cost meals, marks another commendable move in a positive direction for the County.

    For one thing, the ongoing success of the program demonstrates FCPS’s encouraging ability to cooperate with federal, state, and local bodies to undertake what amounts to very challenging (and necessary) work. Other than the USDA, which runs the program, the Virginia Department of Health acts as a sponsor, and local agencies like Fairfax County’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Services aid in administering the service. In working to keep upwards of 50,000 eligible students nourished, FCPS has also attracted the help of community centers, housing developments, and numerous volunteers, all of whom have given freely of their time and resources to serve. Such public-private partnerships remind us how willing individuals and institutions are to lend a hand when given the opportunity, and how much transformative work can be done at little to no cost; FCPS should seek to expand this sort of multi-level cooperation and these sorts of public-private partnerships in as many other contexts as possible.

    More than anything else, though, FCPS’s participation in the program is an important acknowledgement of the obligation to meet our students’ most pressing needs at all costs-even as the number of students receiving free and reduced-price meals continues to increase. Rather than think of this as a budgetary strain, we should consider the fact that more students have been able to register-and have their needs addressed-a glowing success.

    The fulfillment of such basic needs as food and shelter, after all, is prerequisite to FCPS’s other ambitions for its students-better grades, higher test scores, improved graduation rates, and so on. Academic aspirations like these are secondary, in both practical and moral terms: according to the USDA, children who miss meals are “more likely to be sick, absent or tardy, disruptive in class, and inattentive,” and County records repeatedly show how much more students who qualify for free and reduced-cost meals struggle than their peers, academically and otherwise.

    Hopefully, FCPS’s participation in the USDA Summer Food Service Program is a step towards further initiatives aimed at addressing more specific groups and their unique needs, even beyond the classroom. The continually changing nature of our County, along with its size and diversity, calls for a school system focused on the wellness of the student as a whole and, moreover, of the community as a whole. FCPS should strive, then, to become a school system with expanded health services and extracurricular programs, among other things. More than one-size-fits-all initiatives and minor adjustments-from the push for marginally later school start times to nominal modifications to graduation requirements-we need programs, and an entire school system, that will reach out to our most vulnerable students and address their most fundamental needs first. A good meal is a good start.

    Omar Fateh, a lifelong Fairfax County resident and a former Academic Advisor at Northern Virginia Community College, is running for Fairfax County School Board (At-Large).