By Megan Marsh
Over pie and coffee one Wednesday evening, my cousin Jamie told me about the school she teaches at. Queen Palmer Elementary, named after the wife of our city's founder, is located in a pretty rough neighborhood in the central part of Colorado Springs. She told me about the challenges of teaching lower-income students, especially those whose families struggle to put food on the table every day.
Queen Palmer is a title school - 94% of the students there qualify for free or reduced school lunch. Jamie told me that they have also recently begun a free breakfast program and that the school is also a feeding site during the summers.
Knowing that I was headed to DC in a few weeks to talk about this very subject, I timidly asked if it would be possible for me to come talk to her principal. She said yes and graciously set up a meeting.
It'd been a while since I had stepped inside an elementary school, and even longer since I'd been in a principal's office. We sat outside, waiting for a meeting to finish up, and I felt myself get a little nervous.
Julie Fahey has been the principal at Queen Palmer for two years. Last April (2011), through a grant from Hunger Free Colorado, they began a free breakfast program. Because their title rate is so high and because the grant is not a federal one, they are able to provide breakfast for 100% of the students, regardless of status.
Initially, Julie said, there were some concerns. Kitchen and custodial staff were worried about messes and spills. But a representative from Hunger Free Colorado explained that the food would be quick and hand-held. No trays or plates. No messy syrups or sauces. A breakfast burrito, for example. Julie said that spills are rare, and that staff are equipped to take care of them when they do, so it hasn't turned out to be that big of a deal.
Of greater concern was perhaps the loss of instruction time. The kids eat at the beginning of the school day, not before school, and this in a district that already has the shortest classroom time in the city. But they decided the kids could do their morning work while they eat in the classroom, and teachers responded that as a result of the informal "kitchen table-like setting" they were able to learn more about their kids' families and home-lives in two weeks then they had all year.
I've long believed that there is something about sharing a meal together that allows people to open up and you can get a greater sense of their lives. It seems that kids are no exception.
Adequate nutrition helps student achievement
I asked Julie about student achievement and whether she thinks these programs are benefiting the children academically. She said Queen Palmer is doing many things to increase student performance, so it will be difficult to isolate the factors contributing to success, but she believes it is definitely one piece of the puzzle. "If our kids have the proper fuel, they can engage. We've seen less bellyaches and headaches coming down to the office. Kids are getting to school on time more than in the past. They know they're going to miss breakfast if they're late. It's kind of become the culture here."
As for lunches, Julie said that children have a choice between a hot lunch, a sandwich or a salad bar. District 11 has a chef who develops the recipes. He experiments with things like whole wheat noodles and tortillas, always trying to squeeze just a little bit more nutrition into meals. He has federal nutrition guidelines to meet for sure, but she said it's become a pride and joy for District 11 to be doing so well when it comes to nutrition.
I asked Julie about some of the challenges her school sees. She said Mondays are difficult. Often children go for two days without eating much, so when they come back to school, it can be difficult for the teachers to get them under control. She said the kids don't look forward to breaks or holidays. Structure is not there and they may not know when or what they will eat. Though she does not know how many children receive SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits at home, you can draw some conclusions based on who signs up to receive food whenever they tell the parents about donations.
School nutrition programs could bear burden of cuts in SNAP benefits
The burden on school nutrition programs to now make up for cuts Congress is proposing to SNAP benefits will definitely be felt in schools like Julie's. My cousin Jamie's church distributed 100 complete turkey meals to Queen Palmer families last Thanksgiving. There are 266 students at Queen Palmer.
Before I left, I told Julie that I would be going to Capitol Hill in June to talk with my senators and representative. If there was a message I could bring them from her about the school nutrition programs, knowing that Congress is eyeing them for cuts, what would she have me say? She replied:
"It's essential for kids to have good nutrition in order to function. We've got obesity happening with our kids. This [pointing to a McDonald's bag on her desk] is what I call the poverty lunch. It's fast food, it's convenience store food. Kids have to have a place where they can receive good nutrition. For their overall health as well as their mental health. Our kids are sharper and are able to articulate more when they have the right fuel in them. Cutting programs like that is a huge step in the wrong direction. There is so much about education that is going in the wrong direction anyway, but we've got to feed our kids."
For more on the issue of School Nutrition Programs and SNAP benefits, visit Bread.org.
[The author is an anti-hunger and anti-poverty advocate advocate in Colorado Springs and a fellow member of the Bread board of directors. She is also very involved with The ONE Campaign in Colorado]