Should the federal government be providing breakfast, lunch and supper for school children in poor families? Should the faith community be doing more?
Six years ago we enrolled our younger children at William H. Brewster Elementary, a Memphis City School two blocks from our Binghampton home. Brewster is a Title 1 school, meaning it receives additional federal money to assist the large majority of its students who are from low income families. On registration day we were asked to sign the usual host of forms, including a permission slip to use our children’s photographic images in school-related publications and an application for free or reduced-cost meals.
My wife signed the first form but declined to complete the second because our family income is far above the poverty level. That didn’t really matter, she was told. Because the majority of Brewster students met the free lunch requirements, all students could eat breakfast and lunch for free. Over the years, we’ve elected not to avail ourselves of this benefit.
A few weeks after registration we had a bit of a shock. Our daughter Shannon was featured prominently on a district-wide poster promoting the free school meal program. Our response to the poster could best be described as embarrassment. Perhaps that’s the wrong reaction, but we didn’t want people thinking we weren’t feeding our kids breakfast before school or packing them a lunch every day.
The Donlons are outliers at Brewster, but we’ve been at the school and in the community long enough to know that the majority of families there have the means to feed their kids. In our experience, Tony Geraci, MCS’s executive director of school nutrition, was mistaken when he said “Here’s the reality: For a lot of the kids that come to school, the only real meal they can count on comes from the school.”
Here’s the objective data to back up my position: somewhere between 50% and 60% of MCS kids, including those at Brewster, are overweight or obese. Because I’m a physician, the leadership at Brewster has repeatedly asked me to speak to the teachers and parents about diet and exercise. We’ve included messages about the dangers or sweet drinks and junk food at PTO meetings. In the spirit of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, we’ve held field days and better structured recess time.
There are doubtless children at our Title 1 schools who aren’t receiving adequate nutrition at home, but they are thankfully rare. Low income families receive additional benefits that include AFDC money and EBT/Food Stamps to insure that their children don’t go hungry. Instead of blanket feeding programs we should earnestly look for those few kids who aren’t being provided for at home and intervene on their behalf. Such an approach would be more labor intensive and perhaps more costly. Case managers would have to make home visits and ask hard questions. We’ll discover things we don’t want to see and face new questions about how to justly respond to those challenges.
In the long run, it’s worth it. This latest policy decision has the outward appearance of compassion, but it unintentionally weakens urban families. If our struggling communities are going to make progress, parents will have to take more, not less, responsibility for the feeding, supervising, and educating of their children.