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.”

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”