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Hungry to learn

Advocates push for greater meal access at local schools


There’s no such thing as a free lunch, an old saying goes.OUTLOOK PHOTO: ROB CULLIVAN - Serafina Godinez and Brooklynne Holm, second-graders at Salish Ponds Elementary School, look on as teacher Brian Foster helps them open a food packet during breakfast. The school is one of 12 in the Reynolds School District able to serve free meals to all students, regardless of income level, under a federal program called the Community Eligibility Provision.

However, if more students had free lunches — not to mention free breakfasts and other meals — their hunger would be for learning, not food, education officials say.

“If children do not come to school with their basic needs met, including a meal in their bellies, it is very difficult for them to be able to attend to their learning,” says April Olson, federal programs director for the Gresham-Barlow School District.

“When students are hungry, their behavior can also be impacted,” she adds. “Many of our students eat three meals a day at school, as well as take food home for the weekend. Food insecurity is very high in Oregon. Offering free or reduced-price meals to students is critical to their academic success.”

Indeed, according to Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, a Portland-based nonprofit advocacy group, one in four children statewide — 235,410 — is at risk for hunger, with their families sometimes skipping meals or cutting meal portions so they can divert grocery expenses to pay other bills.

Meanwhile, according to the Oregon Department of Education, almost 56 percent of all students attending schools in Multnomah County are eligible for free or reduced lunches because their families have a certain income level.

For example, children in a family of four living on $31,005 annually or less can get free lunches, and children from a similar-sized family living on $44,123 or less can receive lunches at reduced prices.

In addition to eating breakfasts and lunches at schools, many children statewide benefit from the federally funded After School Meal and Snack Program as well as the federally funded Summer Food Service Program, which provides free meals to children at various school sites during the summer.

Eating on-site

East County education leaders note a substantial portion of the young folks they teach depend on their schools for free or reduced-price meals.

For example, between 30 to 35 percent of Corbett School District students receive free or reduced-price lunches, says Superintendent Randy Trani, noting that serving meals in schools are a vital part of fulfilling the district’s mission of educating students.

“Hungry kids do not learn as well as kids who have enough to eat,” he says.OUTLOOK PHOTO: ROB CULLIVAN - Students at Salish Ponds get breakfast in the cafeteria Feb. 27. The school was the site of a visit that day by U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Kevin Concannon.

Athena Vadnais, Gresham-Barlow district spokeswoman, notes the percentage of students on free or reduced lunches this year is 68 — in other words, most students in the district often look to school for free or low-cost food to get through the day.

Similarly, more than 65 percent of students in the Centennial School District use the free or reduced-price lunch program.

That figure does not include students at Oliver, Parklane and Lynch Wood elementary schools, which participate in the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that allows schools with a high percentage of students in or near poverty to offer free meals to all students, instead of collecting individual applications for such meals.

“When kids are hungry, it is harder for them to pay attention in class and learn,” adds Carol Fenstermacher, the Centennial district’s community engagement coordinator. “For some, the meals received at school may be more nutritious than what they get at home.”

Undersecretary visits

A dozen schools in the Reynolds School District participate in the CEP, says Andrea Watson, district spokeswoman. To highlight the program, Kevin Concannon, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, paid a visit to Salish Ponds Elementary School Feb. 27 to meet students and administrators.CONTRIBUTED GRAPHIC - This infographic is being used by Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon to promote wider participation by students in school breakfast programs, as part of the groups Lets Do Breakfast, Oregon! campaign.

The undersecretary’s visit came right before both National School Breakfast Week, March 2-7, as well as National Nutrition Month, March 1-31.

Concannon tells the Outlook the CEP was enacted as part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, which is designed to increase participation and provide access to healthy meals to children in low-income schools. The CEP, which became available in all states last fall, allows schools with large low-income populations to focus on feeding students rather than spending time and money figuring out whether their parents had paid for their meals, he says.

“Teachers become the biggest champions of it because students are better able to concentrate,” Concannon says, adding that children miss fewer days when they are not hungry or malnourished. The meals are designed to reduce childhood obesity.

Joshua DeMuth, 11, a Salish Ponds fifth grader, says he’s a fan of eating at school.

“I think the kids who are struggling with food are very grateful for it,” he says.

Meanwhile, his mother, Katie Lewis, says her family, which includes her husband, John Lewis, doesn’t qualify for free or reduced lunch but nonetheless lives on a tight budget. She appreciates the free breakfasts and lunches.

“He’s just been really enjoying it,” she says of her son, “and it’s made sticking to our budget as a family easier by giving us a little more freedom.”

The breakfasts and lunches also provide Joshua with opportunities to bond more with his fellow students.

“He’s always been a real social kid,” she adds. “The program nurtures that.”

More mouths to feed

Anti-hunger activists in Oregon are pushing to expand participation in school breakfast programs through the “Let’s Do Breakfast Oregon!” campaign, information about which can be found at oregononhunger.org.

Meanwhile, activists are also pushing for legislation that would enable schools to serve more students free lunches. House Bill 2545 would require school districts to provide free lunches to students eligible for reduced-price lunches.

The bill would direct the Department of Education to reimburse school districts for the actual amount students would have been required to pay, and would cost the state about $2.4 million from July 1 of this year through June 30 of 2017, and roughly the same amount for the 2017-19 biennium. Meanwhile, Oregon would get more than $5 million additional federal funds each biennium for the food program, backers say.

One of the bill’s chief sponsors is Rep. Margaret Doherty, D-Tigard, who chairs the House Committee on Education. She notes reduced-price lunches are partially paid for by the federal government and partially by the student’s family. Under HB 2545, the state would take over the cost currently charged to the child. The lunches would be paid for with a mixture of state and federal funding.

“As a former teacher, I know how kids struggle in this state with hunger,” she says. “I vividly recall how my students had to scrimp, save and even borrow in order to afford something as basic as lunch. When kids are hungry, they perform worse in school, act out and suffer health effects.”

She met with nutrition officers from various districts when crafting the bill.

“They explained that the co-pay expected of students on the reduced-price lunch program is a hard burden for them to bear,” Doherty says. “Money often runs out before the month is done, and students find themselves eating very small meals or nothing at all.”

Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, who serves on the education committee, was among the group of Democrats and Republicans who unanimously voted to send the bill to the Ways and Means Committee, which determines budget policy.

“I was happy to vote in support of HB 2545,” she says. “I understand this would require an investment from the state. However, we will never reach our educational goals in Oregon if students are hungry in the classroom.”

Annie Kirschner, director of programs for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, was optimistic HB 2545 would get passed, noting it received unanimous backing from Democrats and Republicans on the education committee.

“From what we can see, there’s not really a group of people against kids getting healthy access to meals at school,” she says with a chuckle.

On a serious note, Kirschner added that eliminating the possibility a student might be unable to pay for a meal lets that student focus on other things.

“Take away the stigma and all of sudden more kids start eating,” Kirschner says, noting what both school and government leaders contend — children can feel singled out when they are on free or reduced lunches in a school where other children are not.

On that note, a number of activists as well as school leaders dream of a world where all students could eat breakfast and lunch at school free of charge, with no need for income eligibility tests.

“We would love to be out of the business of trying to get families to pay their bills,” Corbett Superintendent Trani says. “We would love to be in the business of making sure every kid always has a healthy meal at school.”

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