June 17, 2024 9:27 am
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Food for Thought: The Single Most Important Thing We Can Do to Support Our Students | Opinion

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by Heidi Crumrine, New Hampshire Bulletin

The other day in my freshman English class, I announced that we had to move the lunch block. Normally, they eat at 11:42, but for what was a legitimate reason on this particular day, I needed to move it to 12:15. Or so I thought.

You would have thought that I had announced that I was canceling all vacations; there was practical mutiny. “What?! “We are hungry!” My efforts at reasoning weren’t worth it and while I wasn’t wrong, this change was not truly necessary. I could adjust.

I relented and we went to lunch at 11:42. It was not lost on me that no one would be productive on an empty stomach.

It seems like everyone has an opinion on what young people need in order to learn. Especially in the last few years, there have been lots of loud voices from people who think they know the magic solution. Our state houses have become full of those who are empowered to regulate our classrooms, or curriculum, or content decisions. Some of those ideas are helpful and some of them are harmful. Consider the fact that there are parents’ bills of rights, books, concepts, and words being banned, voucher programs, and gun laws to name a few. Last year in New Hampshire alone, over 100 education bills were introduced in the Legislature. On both sides and right down the middle of the aisle, there is no question that everyone is talking about education.

However, there’s one thing that hardly anyone is talking about: Food. 

All these voices that are seeking to regulate education, and yet no one is willing to engage in a conversation that ensures kids have access to one of the most basic needs necessary for survival – sustenance. The single most important thing we can do to support our students is to feed them. Food is a basic need and without it, not much else can happen. Food levels the playing field. Food allows children to exist in a school (and the world) in a way that sets them up for success. Food gives them a sense of humanity that they might not have elsewhere.  

When students come to school hungry they struggle in nearly every facet of their day. Research has repeatedly found a correlation between food insecurity and school performance, behavior, attendance, motivation, attrition, and mental and social emotional health for students from preschool through college. Students who are hungry do not perform as well as their fed peers and learn less during the school year. Further, it is also well-established that our Black and Hispanic children face higher rates of food insecurity than their white peers. It is not hard to imagine the negative impact of this compounded over time. We are perpetuating the cycle of poverty and inequity by not addressing food insecurity.

The free and reduced lunch program has always been available to children whose families apply for it, but it often undercounts who is eligible. Many families don’t apply for it due to stigma and other factors. Further, free lunch is available only to children whose families make up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $36,075 for a family of four. That leaves out a lot of children who are coming to school hungry, embarrassed about it, and not performing well as a result.

Logical reasoning begs the question: Could providing our students two meals a day actually be a magic bullet? Interestingly, thanks to the pandemic, there is evidence to support a positive correlation between universal food programs and food insecurity. 

With federal waivers from the USDA, at the start of the pandemic, the federal government covered the cost of food for all children in public schools. As a result, food was equitably accessible to all students. Nationally, 10 million children who would have had to pay for lunch during this time got it for free. It sounds remarkably simple, but the children came to school, we fed them, and they benefited in a variety of wonderful ways. All of them. 

Unsurprisingly, recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that food insecurity rates dropped across race and ethnicity during the pandemic. With all the concerning data about the gaps that emerged for our students during this time, this was one thing that improved and we know exactly why it happened. 

On June 30, 2022, these waivers from the USDA ended and states had to decide if they wanted to fund universal meals programs. Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts have all adopted universal meals programs for at least the 2022-23 school year, California and Maine have made it permanent, and California has also erased all school lunch debt.

Unfortunately, New Hampshire is not following suit. Last year, in all of those 100+ bills introduced in the Legislature, only a few had to do with universal food programs. Of those introduced, none came to fruition and districts were left, yet again, trying to fill in the gaps.

Specifically, House Bill 1660, which would have required schools to offer both breakfast and lunch during the day, was voted down, 177-174; House Bill 1229, which would have created a study committee to study school meal programs in New Hampshire, was sent to interim study; and House Bill 1564, which would have required schools to offer breakfast during the school day, was also voted down, 185-152. 

Further, the New Hampshire Education Department has not offered much in the way of support either. They did not support efforts to join a national pilot program to participate in Medicaid Direct Certification, which would automatically enroll children who are participating in Medicaid to the school meal program. The Legislature killed this amendment in the spring over fears that it would cost too much in adequacy. More recent data analyses suggest that the program would have given districts the opportunity to feed kids who otherwise qualify, but don’t receive, school meals – meaning the cost to the education trust fund would have been lower than initial estimates.

Many of the opponents of these efforts have argued that it’s an expensive mandate and that feeding children is the responsibility of their parents. 

Not to sound too much like my students, but, “Bruh,” as they say. Obviously it is the responsibility of a parent to feed their child. All parents want to feed their children. If a child is not getting enough to eat, it is not because their parent doesn’t want to feed them, it is because their parent cannot feed them. It is not a choice, and it is arrogant and privileged to assume otherwise. 

While I am well aware that there are no magic wands to fix all of the ills of society, and that these types of initiatives cost money, is this not the right thing to do? Yes, we can read research about how with access to food, student attendance and grades improve, but shouldn’t we be more happy that their bellies are full? Some might refer to this as an entitlement program, however, how is access to food for children an entitlement. Is access to a bathroom also an entitlement program? 

Yes, it costs money, but that’s part of the point of school: To address what is preventing our students from learning. What if we just fed all children who attended public schools? What if it really was that simple? 

And in the unlikely event any of my students in my Period 6 English 9 class are reading this, I really am sorry I tried to move your lunch block. I won’t do it again. I swear.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.