The U.S. Congress failed earlier this year to prolong the child nutrition program that essentially served free school meals to students during the early and middle stages of the coronavirus pandemic and a desire exists in the District for the effort to continue.
“We are concerned about this program not being extended,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of School and Out-of-School Time Programs at the Food Research & Action Program. “Because the program’s waivers were blocked in the Congress, many students will have to pay for their meals or go through the process of having to sign up for free and reduced breakfast and lunch. There are many families in D.C. who are having trouble making ends meet. This is a high cost of living area.”
Anti-hunger advocates such as FitzSimons say school meals keep a number of District children from going hungry during their lives. Feeding America, a national advocacy group seeking to eliminate hunger, reported on its website that the struggle to afford enough food has become almost twice as high in households with children in the city than households without children, 21.2% compared to 11%. The website revealed prior to the pandemic, 77% of the District’s children relied on free or reduced school meals for the nutrition needed to learn and grow. The city also has the second highest percentage in the country as a state-level jurisdiction for households with children facing hardship compared with the 50 states.
With the waivers terminated by Congress offering universal free school meals, FitzSimons said schools are charging some families to feed their children.
“Some families are eligible for breakfast up to 30 cents and 40 cents for lunch,” she said. “Families who are upper income pay for their children’s meals.”
FitzSimons worries charging students for meals may create a three-tier system that creates a stigma.
“There are the students who are eligible for free meals, those who are eligible for reduced meals and those who pay full price and have no trouble doing that,” she said. “There are some students who don’t feel comfortable with it being known that they are on the free or reduced meals program and have to stay back in the cafeteria. Who wants that? That’s why free meals should be offered to all students.”
LaMonika N. Jones works as an anti-hunger analyst, child nutrition for D.C. Hunger Solutions. Jones said good nutrition for school-aged children has become vital to the learning process.
“Students in D.C. schools need healthy school meals,” Jones said. “Studies have shown that students who eat a good breakfast learn better and those who have a nutritious lunch continue to function better during their classes as opposed to those who don’t.”
Jones agrees with FitzSimons that free school meals remove the stigma of being identified as needy, a distinction some students find embarrassing. Jones said the Congress should not only reauthorize the waivers but pass legislation mandating free school meals for all students.
Cinque Culver lives with his wife and children in the River Terrace neighborhood of Ward 7 in northeast Washington. Culver spoke of his awareness of Congress gutting the waivers that allowed free school meals during the earlier parts of the pandemic and feels the legislators made the wrong move.
“Families having to pay for their kids to eat at school bothers me for societal reasons,” said Culver, who has three daughters enrolled at Anne Beers Elementary School located in the southeast quadrant of the city. “Hunger is rampant in some of these households. People have lost jobs and wages during the pandemic and some haven’t recovered. We have some people who exist desperately below the poverty line. Parents are having to do what they have to do. In some cases, school meals are the only way children eat.”
Culver agrees with Jones that hunger affects the way children learn.
“A lot of kids in the city are in a state of hunger,” he said. “Hunger affects their behavior. Kids cannot concentrate on math or reading when they are hungry. The thing is they won’t tell you they are hungry.”