An opportunity to care for Iowa’s kids

Before the General Assembly comes to a close lawmakers need take notice of new school lunch policies in the southwest.

Legislators in Texas and California have filed bills to address “school lunch shaming.” New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed her state’s anti-shaming bill into law earlier this month, making it the first of its kind in the nation.

“Study after study tells us that hungry students can’t keep up in school to meet their potential,” Martinez noted in her message to lawmakers. “I am pleased to sign Senate Bill 374, which ensures that our children will never go back to class hungry after lunch, even if their parents fail to pay outstanding bills for their meals.”

The New Mexico effort, dubbed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights Act, was especially important to one of its sponsors, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. Having grown up in foster care, the lawmaker told the Albuquerque Journal he knows what it’s like to go to school hungry or to need to perform chores at school in exchange for lunch.

A volunteer places a sandwich on a student's lunch tray as she goes through the line at Benton Commuity Elementary in Keystone, Iowa. (File Photo)
A volunteer places a sandwich on a student’s lunch tray as she goes through the line at Benton Commuity Elementary in Keystone, Iowa. (File Photo)

“It’s very hard to focus on your studies when you’re hungry,” Padilla said.

People have been outraged by the assorted ways children and teens are shamed when their lunch accounts fall short. Some workers have refused to honor local policies, while some individuals have pitched in to avert problems.

• In Pennsylvania, a school lunchroom worker quit after being ordered to take a lunch tray away from an elementary school student.

• An elementary school in Arizona stamped students’ arms with the words “LUNCH MONEY” when accounts ran low. A similar stamp was used on an Alabama student. Both schools have reconsidered their policies in the wake of public outcry.

• A lunchroom worker in Ohio was fired for buying food for students.

• After considering the stigma placed on students, a Minnesota district ended its policy of providing alternative meals, which youth have labeled “sandwiches of shame.”

Citizens and teachers have donated money so that school children will be served lunch.

Still each day, in most school buildings, children and teens are forced to watch as their food is dumped in the trash because of a low or negative school lunch account balance. It happened to one of columnist Todd Dorman’s daughters when the family forgot to move money into the lunch account. Just this week, a Cedar Rapids resident posted on Facebook that a grandchild had her lunch dumped when the family’s account was $1.24 short.

When did it become OK for schools to punish and shame children for their parents’ or guardians’ shortcomings?

In New Mexico it isn’t — not anymore. And while this law is the nation’s first, it won’t be the last.

Each state must clarify its policy on meal debt by July 1, even if that means allowing individual school districts to decide. Most states considering the USDA directive aren’t willing to place school budgets above student health.

In New Mexico, following initial Republican skepticism, the bill was passed with strong bipartisan support — 60-0 in the House and 30-7 in the Senate.

California’s legislation is on a similar tract, having cleared two committees unopposed.

“It’s one of those issues that, irrespective of party, people understand that you don’t visit on the child the sins of the parents. It’s just not right,” said California Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the bill’s sponsor.

USDA officials have argued against use of alternative meals or engaging in other practices that can stigmatize youth. But potential embarrassment is only one piece of the puzzle.

A healthy lunch, like those provided in our schools, contribute to a child’s academic excellence. Studies confirm that students who skip or don’t receive an adequate lunch are distracted in the classroom. Persistent hunger or malnutrition from habitual undereating can interfere with normal physical and mental development.

These are the reasons why, about 70 years ago, the federal government established the school lunch program. Just like public education, it’s an investment not only in today’s children, but tomorrow’s adults. It’s also the reason that new calorie and nutritional guidelines have been established — standards that don’t apply to alternative meals that so many districts now rely upon.

Conversations are initiated each day about how we can create the best possible learning environment for our children. Yet we’ve neglected the core of what we know: If we want students to be alert in the classroom, if we want them to achieve their full potential, we’ve got to feed them.

How refreshing it would be to see Iowa lawmakers brandish their “pro-life” credentials outside of abortion and birth control debates. One of the richest states in arguably the richest nation on the planet should be ashamed to have its youth be hungry.

The time has come. Let’s feed the kids.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on April 16, 2017. Photo credit: File Photo/The Gazette