Sunday, January 03, 2010

Hunger in the Public Schools

New Mexico Appleseed, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that focuses on policy solutions for poor and underserved communities, recently issued a report discussing deficiencies in the meal programs in the Albuquerque Public Schools and how the problem can be addressed in all the school systems in New Mexico.

The organization is part of Appleseed, a network of 16 public interest justice centers in the U.S. and Mexico. The Appleseed Network is dedicated to building a just society in which opportunities are genuine, access to the law is universal and equal, and government advances the public interest. The work of New Mexico Appleseed was recently featured in the New Mexico Business Weekly.

According to the report, entitled Full Stomachs, Full Minds, the controversy that erupted after Albuquerque Public Schools decided to give cheese sandwiches to students whose parents were in arrears in payments for school lunches is a symptom of a larger problem,  This problem, of course, is inadequate funding for school lunch (and breakfast) programs.  Here is an excerpt from the summary of the report.
Once in awhile, if we are paying attention, we encounter a seemingly small problem that turns out to affect a huge number of people. And, if we are very lucky, that problem will have definable and manageable solutions. The Albuquerque Public School’s Alternative Lunch policy turned out to be one of those small plumes of smoke signaling a large state‐wide brush fire. I hope the “Full Stomachs ~ Full Minds” report not only helps to put out the fire, but stops it from happening again.

When I first read about the Alternative Lunch policy promoted by the Albuquerque Public School district, I was torn. The policy gave children whose parents/guardians owed the school money for past lunches an alternative lunch of cold cheese sandwiches and milk. On one hand, the school had a debt to collect and had been generous in allowing children to charge meals on days when they had no money – hence the debt. On the other, the children receiving the alternative lunch were being punished and humiliated for something over which they had no control: whether or not their parents paid the bill.

As I delved further into the issue, it was clear that the cheese sandwiches were merely a symptom of a larger ill: the school systems in New Mexico were, for the most part, implementing the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) such that they were losing money, leaving federal money on the table while hungry children went unfed.
The organization's executive director Jennifer Ramo wrote more about the topic in an opinion piece that was published in the Albuquerque Journal on Jan. 2.  (Note: Sorry, you can only see the piece online if you have a subscription to the Journal,  But the gist of the piece is contained in the two excerpts below).
        Mondays are the most crowded days in the school cafeteria.
        After a weekend of empty refrigerators, children rush to the front of the line for the meal that may be the only one they have all day.
        If you peer into the procession of little round faces waiting for a tray of food — number four hasn't eaten yet today; number eight might not have dinner tonight; and number 12 is going to save her hamburger for her little brother at home.
        The statistic that 25 percent of children in New Mexico go hungry reveals itself in those Monday surges.
        New Mexico school cafeterias have become virtual soup kitchens. If you ask the student nutrition directors, they can tell you who wanted the second helping to take home for dinner. If you ask their teachers, they'll tell you those same kids aren't paying attention in class.
And here are some recommendations:
       The recommendations largely focus on changing and implementing policies that increase the number of children being enrolled in and eating free and reduced price lunch. The more students enrolled and eating, the more reimbursement the school receives, the less each meal costs, and the more kids have full stomachs with the opportunity to have full minds.
        Recommendations include:
        • Increasing the number of schools on Provision Two, a federal program that allows schools to eliminate federal reimbursement-related overhead by giving all students in a school free lunch. New Mexico schools wait an unusually long time to utilize it.
        • Improving the direct certification process that automatically enrolls children on certain public benefits into the free and reduced price lunch program by increasing the frequency of the data matches to schools and the number of public benefit programs that can be used to directly certify children.
        • Requiring proper debt collection practices ensuring a greater debt payoff rate and fewer children being given the cheese sandwich alternative lunch.
        • Requiring adherence to the federally mandated 10-day rule for enrollment. This means schools would have to enroll or deny children within 10 days of their application or pay for those children's lunches until they process their applications.
In the executive report, Ms Ramo points out that the report is just a starting point in the search for solutions.
As New Mexico Appleseed’s role is to work on systemic solutions to issues disproportionately impacting the state’s underserved, we remain committed to the issues of education and hunger. We will continue to investigate the issues herein and are available for further research and collaboration.

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