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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Editorial: Every Child Needs Nourishment During the School Day

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune

By the Editorial Board
March 14, 2018

"This is an important effort. Every student needs to be well fed to succeed, and no child should feel ashamed for not having the money to pay for a meal at school."

No school should ever shame a child who owes money for school lunches. But they do, as examples from New Mexico to Michigan to Kentucky have shown in recent years. Children have had their lunches thrown away in front of other students, their hands stamped to show they owe money and other punishments.

New Mexico disallowed those practices last year, and Governor John Bel Edwards wants Louisiana to do the same.

"This session, we will ensure that students are not stigmatized when they cannot afford to pay for a meal," he told lawmakers in his speech opening the regular session Monday (March 12). Making sure children are fed is not only the humane thing to do, it is vital to their ability to learn.

House Bill 284, sponsored by Baton Rouge Democrat Representative Patricia Smith, would forbid Louisiana public school systems from stigmatizing children by requiring them to wear a wristband, hand stamp or other marks to show they are in debt or to do chores to pay for meals. Schools also would be prohibited from withholding privileges from a child, scolding them verbally or in writing or requiring them to throw a meal away after it has been served.

That all seems like basic decency.

Schools would be required to provide a meal to a child regardless of whether he or she can pay for it or owes money for previous meals. The legislation calls for schools to notify parents directly about what is owed for meals, not to send messages through children.

There still could be consequences. A parent who fails to pay for 10 or more meals during a school year could be reported to the state Department of Children and Family Services.

The bill also outlines a process for schools to encourage parents to apply for free school meals and requires a report on how many meals are provided to students who didn't pay.

For some school districts, there will be no unpaid costs. In 2010, Congress approved a program to allow schools with at least 40 percent low-income students to serve every child breakfast and lunch at no cost without having to do individual paperwork. School districts have to opt in to the program.

As of the 2016-17 school year, 78 percent of eligible Louisiana school districts were participating, according to the Food Research & Action Center. That was the seventh-highest rate in the nation and far higher than the national average of 46.5 percent.

The percentage of individual schools participating is a little lower, at 72.6 percent, which may indicate a lack of awareness that the state or school systems need to address.

Louisiana is moving the right direction, though. The state added more than 100,000 students to the program between 2016 and 2017, the Food Research & Action Center report said.

Not every Louisiana school is eligible, but those that are ought to participate. This program makes sure every child at a school can be fed and eliminates the "free lunch" stigma. Even families who may not have qualified in the past for free or reduced-cost school meals may have trouble paying for breakfast and lunch on a regular basis.

Governor Edwards reminded legislators Monday that 1 in 4 children in Louisiana live in poverty. Last year, he and his wife, Donna, launched Louisiana's No Kid Hungry Initiative to increase the number of children eating breakfast at school. More than 300 schools participated, providing more than 147,000 additional meals to students.

"When we are able to give students a well-balanced meal at the start of the day, they perform better, they are less likely to act out, which allows our teachers to focus their efforts on teaching," Governor Edwards said Monday.

This is an important effort. Every student needs to be well fed to succeed, and no child should feel ashamed for not having the money to pay for a meal at school.

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