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Full Bellies = Sharp Minds. Why Should I Care if Your Kids Eat Free?

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By Tamer Mokhtar, Chrystal Doyle & Bud Cothern

You are in 3rd grade and you’re 8 years old. After a morning filled with a math lesson, a spelling quiz, and comparing your old and tattered Pokemon cards with your classmates, you’re ready for lunch. It’s pizza day in the cafeteria, so everyone is in a good mood. You pick your slice (pepperoni), some green beans (because you have to), some mixed fruit and milk, and slide your tray on the stainless steel runner towards the register. It’s then that your mood changes. You start thinking about your friends behind you in line…they pay a little too much attention to you when the register attendant inputs your ID number, looks down at you for a moment, and replaces your pizza slice with a grilled cheese sandwich. “It’s okay,” your friend says. But, it’s not okay. Not to you.

11.8% of Virginians are food insecure (2014). In Nottoway County, it’s 17.5%. In Henrico County, 13.3%. More than 50% of children receive free or reduced cost meals in 37 schools in Henrico County (HCPS) and 20 schools in Chesterfield County (CCPS). Did you know that students can go into debt buying breakfast and lunch at school? School meal debt is almost $19,000 in Henrico County and it’s over $44,000 in Chesterfield County!  The cost of meal debt and all that it represents are too expensive for any of us to ignore.

Students incur meal debt when they go through the cafeteria line and do not have money on their student accounts. They select their entree and then have those entrees removed or replaced when they arrive at the register. In HCPS the entree is replaced with a grilled cheese sandwich, which has become emblematic of “being poor,” especially at affluent schools. The sandwich symbolizes being different, poor, “Other.” Not only do many students carry the sandwich and its stigma, but they carry meal debt. This debt is capped in HCPS at $5.40, which is the equivalent of two full-priced lunches. CCPS has no cap and students can accrue hundreds of dollars in meal debt from the day they start school through graduation. High school Seniors cannot “walk” at graduation if they carry meal debt–even if it’s only $5.40. You will find similar situations in other schools in the rest of the 7th Congressional District (in Nottoway, Goochland, Louisa, Amelia, Orange, Powhatan, Spotsylvania, and Culpepper) and indeed, all across the USA.

So, why should I care if your kids eat free? Three concerned citizens of Virginia’s 7th Congressional District share their perspectives about this question and discuss why local, state, and national legislators should be fighting to meet students’ basic human need for a nutritious meal and to reduce the burden of poverty in this country. In the face of leadership preoccupied with defunding public education and repealing school nutrition standards, we take it upon ourselves to directly address student meal debt and hope you will too through the campaign Full Bellies = Sharp Minds.

Tamer Mokhtar, Advocate

I didn’t get it. “No, we don’t need that help.” That was my mother’s response when I presented her with the application for free or reduced lunch – once again – when I was in the 5th grade. “There are others that need it more than us.”

I didn’t get it. We lived in the same apartments as so many of my friends that were “on free lunch.” All of our moms worked multiple jobs. All of us went month to month wondering whether it was going to be the hot water, the phone, or the lights that were going to be cut off this time. But they all had that lunch punch card, and I didn’t. I didn’t get it.

The difference was that my mother knew her job was stable. Her night jobs came and went, but we always had a solid base. We never had to go to bed without dinner – even if it was mostly rice. We may have qualified for school meal benefits, but we didn’t need it as much as others. I think I get it now.

Sure, pride played a part in her refusal. But more influential in her way of thinking was her firm belief that we should always take care of those with needs greater than our own. She gave a damn. I know I get it now.

Thankfully, my kids will never have the hot water, or the phone (well, the wifi), or the lights cut off. (If you’re reading this, your kids likely won’t either.) They will never come close to “qualifying” for anything income based. But, my children are also being taught the importance of helping others with needs greater than their own. This position is not political or partisan. It’s a simple principle of caring for those less fortunate than ourselves.

Taking resources away from the very institutions that make it their mission to provide for the less fortunate is inexplicable. My mother understood this idea, even as she worked two and three jobs to raise her children on her own. Why anyone requires convincing that we should help those in need, especially children, is beyond me. Sacrificing for the most basic of needs, for the most vulnerable among us just doesn’t make sense. I just don’t get it.

If you support children in need too and don’t see how anyone could not “get it,” then please join me in giving to Full Bellies = Sharp Minds.

Chrystal Doyle, Nurse

You can’t know my deep story just by looking at me or anyone else. If you judged me based on my race and symbols of religion, culture, and affluence, then you’d likely think I came from a privileged white family and only care about protecting my own. But, you’d be wrong. You wouldn’t know that I grew up working class in small-town Texas. I went to the gun range with my dad and by 6th grade I realized my family were unabashed racists, bless their hearts. We were never food insecure, but I was dreadfully aware that I was a part of the have-nots. I started working at age 12 so that I could experience life beyond the end of my nose and I applied for every college scholarship I could because I had to get out. I wouldn’t survive if I stayed.

I went to university on scholarship and personal loans, took women’s studies and non-Western religion classes that challenged my limited world-view,  and decided to travel the world. I even worked as a cocktail waitress at a “gentlemen’s club” for a short stent to earn enough money to study abroad. Talk about a learning experience! But, I don’t kid myself. I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. I relied heavily on public school and church resources and worked my tail off, competing with affluent peers who went to private school, music lessons, cotillion, and sport camps. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but keenly aware that what I achieved is not possible for everyone in this country because we–as a Country–do not value people of different economic, ethnic, cultural, racial, education, and religion equally. And, it pisses me off to no end.

I see this inequality every day. My 8-year old son boards the bus each morning to enjoy a school flush with resources provided by an affluent, active PTA. Approximately 11% of students at his school receive free or reduced meals. That school doesn’t worry about hunger or accreditation–they fundraise for playgrounds and snowcone trucks. After my son gets on the bus, I drive 5 miles to work. The elementary school where I work struggles to maintain accreditation and 75% of students receive free or reduced meals. My students are predominately African American, Hispanic, and immigrant. They come from families with lower-than-average educations and incomes–some are even newly settled refugees and immigrants. I’m not bothered by the fact that the families of these children need more help than I do because I have the resources to ensure my child’s success. Their need is greater, so they should receive more assistance.

Here’s my need: I need to know that every child eats school lunch without stigma, learns without worry, and dreams without limits. I need to know that we care enough as a society to feed children–ALL children. Research suggests that eating breakfast with protein and iron improves student test scores. Since we judge student and school success based on test scores and we use these test scores to determine school accreditation and funding, why wouldn’t we make the modest investment school meals to ensure academic performance? When I hear doctors and economists turned politicians talk about spending billions of dollars to start new education programs to help failing children and schools–and yet these newly minted legislators aren’t engaged in programs to feed children– it tells me that they really don’t care about the success of kids or public schools. It tells me their interests lie elsewhere and these interests don’t support my values.

I value children and their potential. I value the fact that I had a system in place to help me succeed. I value that I am now in a position to help shape the system to help others, which is why I support Full Bellies = Sharp Minds.

Bud Cothern, Superintendent (Retired), Goochland County Public Schools

As a 69 year old man, I am too old to have received free or reduced meals when I attended public schools. If they had been available, I surely would have qualified. I knew the stigma first hand of not ever getting a lunch tray like many of my classmates, taking a bologna sandwich wrapped in “tin” foil every day except, of course, the days when it was just plain mayonnaise.

My working-class parents tried hard–I was fed well at home and encouraged to go to school and to do well. I also remember getting that five cents for the daily cafeteria milk bottle. (That was a long time ago, I know. Yes, we actually had small glass bottles. Somebody usually dropped and broke one everyday; entertainment was cheap then.) Nonetheless, I am a proud product of the public schools, getting by in spite of my poverty. I often felt shamefully different from my classmates in ways many of my friends today would never understand.

I had one advantage, however. I was a white male who could easily assimilate into the greater society–college was that opportunity. I had part-time jobs early in life, worked every summer through college years, borrowed money, and got through university with the help of Uncle Sam’s grants. With government help I achieved my dream to become a teacher. This story has been hard to write, as the scars of childhood poverty are not something I talk about much. But, it is important to say it now, probably more than ever.

I have spent most of my life in public schools, as a student, teacher, and school administrator–most of it in poor and high-minority population schools. In my career I watched kids come to school with little advantage, lacking clothing, breakfast, positive reinforcement–you know, all the things we expect to give to our own children and grandchildren. Throughout my career I saw the opportunity that well-run public schools could bring to kids, advantages that come with “leveling the playing field.”

I can personally attest to the inestimable value of feeding kids in school. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you are hungry you have little inclination to concentrate on other activities.  Moreover, sustained hunger creates listless, aggravated humans, not eager, interested scholars.

I have experienced many trepidations since the 2016 presidential election, but didn’t anticipate the cruel attitudes displayed by Presidential cabinet members toward innocent children. I was shocked by the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, who I believe doesn’t understand the contributions public education has made to our democratic society. I was dismayed by proposed House Bill 610 and its flawed plan for educational vouchers and its repeal of nutritional standards for school lunches.

As much as I have despaired over the current administration’s blasé attitude toward kids’ futures, I was especially stunned by the comments of Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who said on CNN, “Let’s talk about after-school programs generally: they’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed at school so they do better in school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually helping results, helping kids do better in school.”

When I saw Mulvaney say that on TV, I almost came out of my chair.  There’s plenty of contradictory evidence–even on government web sites like the Department of Agriculture. Obviously Mulvaney was ignorant of seminal research conducted nearly 30 years ago by Dr. Michael Weitzman,  who found a causal relationship between academic performance and expanded school breakfast programs for the first time. When the study was released, Weitzman argued that the public cost for school meals is a very small price compared to its benefit to society. The study “clearly demonstrates that feeding children breakfast in school at a very modest cost – less than $1 a day – has positive effects on their educational attainment,” Dr. Weitzman said to the New York Times.

In the end, I don’t need empirical evidence. I know getting nutritious meals in school is good for kids’ performance. I have over thirty-five years of personal, on the ground experience (in research circles that’s called ethnographic), observing and talking with students of all ages, sexes, and races. That’s why I support Full Bellies = Sharp Minds. I hope you will join me in supporting this program and fighting ignorance about food insecurity. Our public schools helped to make this country great the first time, and for all time.

In Conclusion

The three of us who shared our stories span the spectrum of age, sex, race, culture, and religion. We each faced challenges as children and achieved the American Dream. In our current political climate, we have the most to gain from leadership that rewards the wealthy, but argue that the resources should be used to raise up the least among us.

“Don’t help me, help them” is a strange argument and a tough pill to swallow. But, consider school vouchers: The “school choice” legislation supported by State Senators Siobhan Dunnavant and John O’Bannon (SB 1243), Congressman Dave Brat, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos provide government education dollars directly to families so they can send children to their school of their choice. But, these funds will not cover the total cost of most alternate schools–they will essentially give affluent families a discount for private school. Additionally, these school voucher proposals do not hold private and parochial schools accountable for meeting the needs of disadvantaged children who need the high quality teachers, low cost or free, highly nutritious meals, and special health, education, and language services. They will not receive these services at most privately operated schools, so vouchers will not help them.

Ending educational disparity matters because the economic success of the United States depends on the health, education, and self-reliance of its population as a whole. Success does not occur overnight or without civic and political leadership and financial support. We must close the educational gap and ensure that those around us with the greatest need receive the greatest help so that we all rise together.

At a very elementary level (pun intended), we can begin to close the gap by providing free, nutritious meals to children at school. No family should worry whether their child has food and no child should be stigmatized or punished for their poverty. School meal debt is shameful–no child, family, or school district should bear the burden. Given the percentage of economically challenged families across Virginia, the solution is not charging less for meals or holding parents more accountable. The solution is recognizing and directly addressing the need where it exists–in the bellies of children in schools.

Rather than diverting funds from public education, legislators, especially those who are doctors, lawyers, and economists who went to seminary, need to put on their thinking caps and figure out how we make our public education system more robust–how we provide students with the education, leadership, social, and survival needs to become full members of society. Until that occurs, join us in paying off shameful, burdensome school meal debt so that high school Seniors can honorably walk across the stage at commencement. Celebrate their success by contributing to Full Bellies = Sharp Minds.

Call, write, and visit your Member of Congress, Vote NO against HB 610.