Today, about 10,000 students will be devouring sandwiches, fresh fruit, and milk for dinner in Washington D.C. public schools. Bill Turque at the Washington Post reports that D.C. public schools have launched a school dinner program, which will allow many students to eat three meals a day at school. Dinners are being offered in 99 of D.C.’s 123 schools, and in some schools in Montgomery and Prince George’s County, Maryland. According to the Washington Post, nearly a quarter of all public school students in the city now eat dinner at school. D.C. officials say the dinner program has three goals: staving off hunger, fighting childhood obesity, and increasing participation in after-school programs.
Early dinners at school will primarily benefit poor students, many of them members of racial and ethnic minority groups. D.C. schools report that in the ’08-09 school year, 66% of enrolled students were eligible for free- or reduced- meals — a nine percentage point increase from the previous school year. According to the Food Environment Atlas, D.C. has a 25.8 percent childhood poverty rate, and the Washington Post reports that among African American children in D.C., the poverty rate is 43 percent. In the ’08-09 school year, 79% of D.C. public school students identified as black, 12% identified as Hispanic, 2% identified as “other ethnicity,” and 7% identified as white.
As Ed Bruske at Grist points out, several WaPo readers reacted angrily to the idea that public schools are providing dinner, and responded lambasting the “nanny state,” rolling out tired tropes about third graders on welfare with cell phones and $100 sneakers, and injecting a hefty dose of racism into the debate.
“The year will be 2050 and blacks will still be complaining about being held down and not being able to handle life’s requirements without ongoing, permanent government welfare,” one commenter writes. It’s the black circle of life.”
Internet comment sections are famous for bringing out extremism and vitriol, and though I don’t think most Americans want poor black children to go hungry just because they were born poor and black, a vocal minority appears to believe just that.
Of course, non-vitriolic, reasonable readers might also have questions and qualms about the program, or think there is a better alternative — for instance, how will this program be funded? Will it mean cuts in other school programs? Would students be better served if, say, food stamp allowances for their entire families were increased? What if the students are just being fed more tater tots and canned peaches in syrup, will there actually be many nutritional benefits?
Answering some of these questions is straightforward: the dinner initiative will cost $5.7 million dollars this year. I can’t find information on resulting cuts elsewhere, but will keep looking. Answering others is much trickier: determining whether an alternative solution is better would require a great deal of study and any answers we come up with now are bound to be somewhat speculative.
The question of food quality is one that can be answered — and in fact, I was very encouraged by what I found.
When the Child Nutrition Bill recently stalled in the House before Congress adjourned to campaign, school lunch programs across the country missed a chance for some small funding increases and improvements on a federal level. (Unfortunately, the bill was funded in part by cutting future increases in food stamp funding, so a number of Democrats refused to support it.) Months before, though, in May 2010, the Council of the District of Columbia passed the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, which is intended to build a healthy school environment, including providing an additional 10 cents for each meal served, requiring all school meals to meet the Institute of Medicine’s nutritional standards, establishing a farm-to-school program and providing extra funding for meals including local foods, incorporating an hour of physical activity into every school day, and more.
School dinners being served in D.C. emphasize fresh fruits, vegetables and “from-scratch” cooking. WaPo’s photo gallery accompanying the story shows students tucking in to roast beef wraps, apples, plums and 1% milk — a typical supper served to students who say that “at home” meals are far more likely to be tv dinners than fresh fruit.
Real Food at School Fuels Students
I’m very enthusiastic about this dinner program. Good food at school effects children positively on many levels:
- Many children, especially low-income children, get more than half the calories they eat every day from school lunches. For some, free or reduced-price school meals are nearly their only source of food. Balanced school meals, even if they’re not of as high a quality as we would like, can make the difference between a child getting his or her vitamins and nutrients for the day and going hungry.
- Healthy children are more likely to become healthy adults. Malnutrition affects a growing body and brain, and children who don’t eat well are more prone to illnesses like diabetes in the future.
- A healthy, filling meal is essential for academic success. Hungry students have trouble focusing on their work, and it’s been suggested that they have more behavioral and disciplinary problems. As several WaPo commenters wrote, “Schools are for learning” — they go on to say “not getting food,” but how much can a seven-year-old learn when her stomach is aching and head is spinning with hunger? How much algebra homework can a eighth grader plow through when his dinner is a handful of crackers? How inspired will a ten-year-old student be to take up the trombone if going to after-school band practice means vending machine dinner? It’s unreasonable to try to completely separate “learning” from basic needs.
- School lunches play a role in forming life-long eating habits. That could mean learning eating Fritos from a vending machine, or it could mean learning to eat local apples, whole-wheat veggie and hummus wraps washed down with skim milk. The D.C. Healthy Schools Act plus their dinner program is a huge step toward the second scenario. Students may not take to eating broccoli instead of Doritos right away, but they’re learning that a meal = sandwich + fruit + salad + low-fat milk. That formula has the potential to affect their entire lives.
- When school food programs include gardens, they can even change a child’s entire relationship to food. The Healthy Schools Act of 2010 establishes a school garden program, and a competitive grant program to fund school gardens. From my work at The Food Project, I’ve seen how much difference it can make to children to grow their own green beans and to pick their own strawberries. Not only do kids get a chance to learn about where their food comes from, they’re much more excited about eating vegetables when they’ve seen them grow from seeds.
- As D.C. school officials point out in the Washington Post article, school dinners can draw students to after-school activities. That could mean more students involved in extra academic tutoring, sports, arts, and music. There is research that suggests that longer school days with more “enrichment” opportunities like these may dramatically improve students’ academic performance.
- Thinking beyond the students for a moment, schools are a huge market, purchasing the raw materials for thousands of meals a day. With the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, D.C. schools will be rewarded for including local ingredients in the meals they serve — this will not only improve the quality of meals, it will create more demand for local food, and support local farmers.
I want to be clear: there’s no doubt it would be ideal if all parents of all income levels could and would feed their children high-quality meals in a loving, supportive family atmosphere. A family dinner where parents and children could bond and chat about learning about birds in science class, where children could learn how to cook beans properly and how to say handle a knife and fork (or chopsticks) would be wonderful — far better than meals at school. We should work toward making that a reality. However, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Sending children home hungry won’t help anything. It won’t force parents to be more responsible if their irresponsibility is at fault, and it certainly won’t magically raise the income and increase free time of parents who are already working as hard as they can to find work or make it through their minimum-wage jobs.
We should support the D.C. school dinner program, and I think it should be used as a model for other school dinner programs. At the very least, it should spark discussions about how schools can best serve their students who have serious material disadvantages.
Photo reused under Creative Commons Attribution License, with thanks to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.