First Person

Healthy school food backers celebrate passage of school nutrition bill

A child eats dinner at the Kids Cafe at the Shopneck Boys and Girls Club in Brighton. Newly approved legislation will allow feeding programs such as the Kids Cafes to offer low-income children a third meal, in addition to school breakfast and lunch.

Christmas came early this week for child hunger advocates in Colorado who feared the U.S. Congress might play Grinch and fail to pass a long-sought child nutrition bill.

“There was an audible sound of relief and excitement when it passed,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, who has spent much time this fall lobbying for the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which passed the House of Representatives 254-157 on Thursday. It now goes to President Obama for his signature.

“It was taking a long time,” Watney said. “We had not give up all hope, but there was a lot of concern.”

The act not only reauthorizes spending on the nation’s school lunch programs, it also provides $4.5 billion over the next 10 years to expand and streamline enrollment in those programs, to increase the meal reimbursement rate to schools who adhere to health meal standards and to establish and strengthen nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools.

Advocates find much to love in the legislation

Around Denver, child advocates were unpacking the various parts of the bill, holding them up and admiring them, envisioning how they will impact Colorado. Like an all-you-can-eat buffet, different people were drawn to different parts of the bill.

At Hunger Free Colorado, executive director Kathy Underhill was particularly pleased about that section that provides funding for suppers, in addition to school breakfasts and lunches.

“We already have some after-school programs that provide that third meal, but they’re only reimbursed for snacks,” said Underhill. “So somebody like Food Bank of the Rockies, who does a full meal at their Kids Cafes, with this funding they’ll be able to improve the quality of that meal. It will be huge. Food is a great draw, a great engagement tool.”

Underhill is also excited over the bill’s promised expansion in the number of summer feeding sites. Previously, non-profits who ran summer feeding programs were limited to no more than 25 meal sites. But this past summer, when Colorado obtained a waiver from that restriction, the number of children participating in summer feeding programs shot up.

“In Colorado, we served nearly a million meals to kids last summer. That’s up 26 percent from the summer before,” Underhill said. “That’s a significant statewide change in a year, and it’s because Colorado got that waiver that lifted the cap for nonprofits. Now that that’s been made federal law, it will help those high functioning nonprofits that really want to get in there and serve more kids to do so.”

Legislation means higher nutritional standards for school food, including snacks

At LiveWell Colorado, where the focus in on anti-obesity efforts, officials were applauding the tighter nutritional guidelines, as well as the increased meal reimbursement rates, which will allow school food programs to buy more fresh produce.

“We’re thrilled to see this bill’s passage because the legislation will significantly promote and advance healthy foods in our schools,” said Maren Stewart, president and CEO of LiveWell. “That’s a critical element in the fight against childhood obesity. People have seen that Colorado is ranked as the leanest state in the country, but that’s a ranking that’s for adults. Our childhood obesity rate isn’t as good. We’re 23rd in the country for childhood obesity. It’s a problem in Colorado, and this act will make a big impact.”

The amount the federal government reimburses school districts for meals varies depending on location and on the number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals, but typically ranges between $2.32 and $2.89 per eligible child, and 26 cents to 34 cents for children who pay full price. Those reimbursement rates, which have not been increased in 30 years, will now go up by 6 cents.

Six cents doesn’t sound like much, but when multiplied by thousands of children every day, it adds up, Stewart said.

“What we hope to see in the short term is that schools will take advantage of the increase by serving more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. It can make a big difference,” she said.

Another section of the bill for the first time requires all foods served at school – including snacks – to meet minimum nutritional standards. At the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Watney was happily envisioning vending machines stocked with granola bars, apples and water rather than candy bars, potato chips and sugary drinks.

“It seems counterintuitive, but with childhood poverty on the rise in Colorado, we’re also seeing hunger and obesity on the rise. Kids who may be either hungry or coming from homes with food instability are more likely to grab a snack from a vending machine during the morning. And if what is available there is candy and potato chips, that leads to an increase in obesity,” Watney said. “The reality is that kids are like all of us. Sometimes they just go for what’s there. So it’s our responsibility to see to it that what’s there will feed their bodies and their minds.”

Watney said a survey last year of 23 of the largest school districts in Colorado – accounting for 80 percent of the state’s school enrollment – revealed that only four districts required snacks to meet minimum nutritional standards. Now, all districts will be required to implement those standards.

Kids Cafes already serving suppers to youngsters

At Food Bank of the Rockies, officials aren’t sure just how the new legislation will impact them, but expect it will only be good.

“We hope we’ll be able to expand the number of sites, and increase what we can give the kids at their meals,” said Janie Gianotsos, director of community relations and marketing.

As of October, the food bank was running 18 Kids Café sites, serving full suppers to about 1,000 youngsters each day, plus 107 snack sites serving another 2,600 kids daily.  For each of those 28,300 monthly meals, the organization is reimbursed just 74 cents apiece. It spends around $1 per meal, depending on how much is purchased and how much can be made with donated foodstuffs.

Next month, the organization plans to open a community kitchen at which to prepare the hot meals, then deliver them to the dispersed sites.

“They eat early, around 4 p.m.,” Gianotsos said. “They come directly after school and play awhile, then they have a sit-down meal, then go back and play some more. For a lot of these kids, there’s nothing for them to eat at home. For some, their home situtation is extremely dire. These meals are extremely important for these kids.”

Funding the bill remains problematic

Despite the rejoicing at the bill’s promises, some lumps of coal remain.

Opponents of the bill – including two Colorado Republicans, Rep. Mike Coffman and Rep. Doug Lamborn – questioned the bill’s price tag and its increased spending at a time when the deficit is causing ever-greater concern.

“I joined with the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators in opposing the legislation because of its costly unfunded federal mandates on school districts as well as my concern over the $4.5 billion in new spending,” Coffman said in a statement.

Even Underhill is distressed that the source of the funds to pay for the program is the nation’s food stamp program.

“I hate to see food stamp benefits raided,” she said. “I am hopeful they will fix that yet during this lame duck session.”

She said public opinion appears to be very much on the side of funding anti-hunger programs. She said that a newly-completed statewide poll commissioned by Hunger-Free Colorado found that 70 percent of respondents oppose cutting state and local hunger programs as a way to balance the budget, and of that number, 49 percent said they were “strongly opposed.”

“That’s from every region of the state, including liberals, moderates and conservatives,” she said. “The people in Colorado want this issue addressed.”

More information:

Read a summary of the bill’s provisions.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.