The Other 60 Percent

School nutrition bill’s impact in Colorado

A child eats dinner at the Kids Cafe at the Shopneck Boys and Girls Club in Brighton. New legislation will allow feeding programs such as this 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.”

Law means higher nutritional standards for food, 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,” she said. “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.”

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”