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Weekend Read: School Lunches

Pennsylvania officials came under fire this week when they attempted to collect money owed for school lunches in one of the poorest districts in the state.

After failing to reach families through other modes of communication, the director of federal programs for the Wyoming Valley West School District sent a letter to about 1,000 families, who owed an average of $28, stating that:

“Your child has been sent to school every day without money and without a breakfast and/or lunch. This is a failure to provide your child with proper nutrition and you can be sent to Dependency Court for neglecting your child's right to food. If you are taken to Dependency court, the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

County officials dismissed the threat, assuring families that it was empty and would not be acted on. Ultimately, the incident was no more than a scare tactic by a handful of officials and an embarrassment to others. But it highlights the real-world hostility toward low-income students and families who struggle with hunger every day.

One in five children live in poverty in the Wyoming Valley West School District. In the coming year, free lunches will be provided to all students in the district, because at least 60 percent of them meet the federal income threshold to qualify for free school meals.

Across the country more than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program. These kinds of programs not only move the needle on child hunger but increase students’ mental and physical growth. Policies aimed at supporting single, working mothers also make a difference in child hunger.

Right now, African-American and Latino children experience hunger at double the rate of white children in this country, in part because wealth inequality has widened along racial and ethnic lines in recent decades.

This means that black and Latino children are more likely to be stigmatized for their poverty. Some schools physically separate kids who receive free or discounted lunches, sending an unintended and false message that affects perceptions of race among children.

There are ways to feed children from low-income families without stigmatizing them or causing them to feel shame. But it falls on the shoulders of school administrators to commit to more equitable lunch policies. Our own Teaching Tolerance project has created a toolkit to help educators view lunchtime through an equity lens.

In the current climate, political support has waned for food programs for the poor, to the point of hostility. The SPLC is deeply concerned with one specific step the Trump administration has taken – one that would prevent an estimated 3 million people from receiving supplemental assistance for their food budgets.

A new calculation proposed by the administration would make the federal poverty line rise more slowly each year, pushing many low-income people over it. This would eventually reduce the number of families eligible for assistance programs – including school lunches – despite the fact that they would still be experiencing poverty.

You can make a difference on this issue, as the public comment period is still open for these changes until September 2019.

The only way to stop the Trump administration from redefining poverty is to speak out. We encourage people to tell their personal stories of needing food assistance and to urge federal policymakers to reject this plan.

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.

Photo by Credit John Huff/AP Images