By Arlene Kiyomi Dennistoun
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Washington is quickly in a race to the bottom when it comes to ensuring our low-income students have the food they need to start the school day fueled and ready to learn,” said Carrie Glover, senior policy manager at Within Reach. Glover was one of several advocates supporting HB 1295, the “Breakfast After the Bell” bill.
Washington ranks 45th in the nation for serving breakfast to students eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
Despite a potential loss of $25 million in federal subsidies, according to the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), and numerous studies showing that children who participate in school breakfast programs have better diets, reduced food insecurity, better test performance, and fewer distractions — lawmakers have failed to pass a bill providing hungry K–12 kids with breakfast after the bell, since 2013.
HB 1295, sponsored by Rep. Zack Hudgins (D–Tukwila), would require all high-needs K–12 schools to offer breakfast after the start of the school day beginning in 2017. High-needs schools means any public school with 70 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
“We have massive poverty in South King County,” said Rep. Mia Gregerson, (D-SeaTac) in a recent interview. She sponsored a different school meal bill, HB 2964, which would end reduced-price lunch co-pays for pre-kindergarten and K–12 students.
“It’s pretty clear that communities of color in general have a higher need,” said Gregerson. “Everyone recognizes there’s a need. There’s hyper-focus on K–3, but that’s not our mandate. Our mandate is to serve all of our children.”
Gregerson told a Senate committee, “When I eat breakfast in the morning and I look out the window and I see families living in their cars, that’s a real story.”
More than 90 percent of students in Gregerson’s district rely on free and reduced-price lunches.
“Kids are short 25 cents for their meals daily. What we fight every day inside this Olympia bubble is whether or not that’s the role of government — versus teachers or churches.”
Students in Gregerson’s district, which includes the Highline School District, comprise of Somali, Black, Asian Pacific Islander, and Southeast Asian children and their families.
EDUCATORS GO THE EXTRA MILE
Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline School District, was on hand to serve lunch during a recent visit to Southern Heights Elementary School. The school does not have a “Breakfast After the Bell” program, although a few other schools in the district are giving it a try. Enfield said she does everything in her power to keep schools open during snow days because she worries the children won’t get a meal, especially during multiple closures. She wants the Asian Pacific Islander community to know she recognizes the importance of good nutrition for students, and she encourages parents to contact the principals of their children’s schools with questions on getting help with meal programs, whether it’s breakfast or lunch.
Alyssa Dahl, a second and third grade teacher at Southern Heights Elementary, is in her ninth year of teaching. She said 98 percent of her students are students of color. She gets to know her students within two weeks and has two or three kids a week displaying behavior issues she recognizes as not normal. When that happens, she takes them aside and gives them a graham cracker and some juice she keeps on hand (her own resources); the kids always calm down and get on with their school day.
BATTLE ON CAPITOL HILL
State Superintendent Randy Dorn of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has taken no position on HB 2964. OSPI spokesman Nathan Olson said the superintendent is absolutely supportive of policies that ensure adequate and healthy food for students. Children will benefit from any reduction of barriers in this regard, and HB 2964 is a local school district matter.
It’s uncertain whether HB 2964 will pass this year. Most lawmakers opposed to HB 2964 argue that meals are not the state’s first priority, and that two dollars a week is reasonable to pay no matter how poor and it’s rare that parents do not have 40 cents to pay for lunch. If parents aren’t paying because they’re unemployed, then the legislature needs to address that issue.
Similar arguments were made during House floor discussions on HB 1295. “This bill (“Breakfast After the Bell”) is a simple bill in many ways. It’s about feeding hungry kids. It’s not about some of the philosophical discussions we’ve (the legislature) had,” said Rep. Hudgins. “Hungry kids can’t learn. Hungry kids are disruptive. Hungry kids end up in the nurse’s office with grumbling stomachs.”
If HB 1295 fails again, he’ll continue to work on the issue because “it’s the right thing to do,” said Rep. Hudgins in a recent interview. Funding education at the level demanded by the court’s 2012 McCleary decision is not an issue, he added. Billions of dollars are being spent on buildings and teachers’ salaries. “But if kids are hungry – I hate to say this, but it’s penny wise, pound foolish” not to spend a one-time startup cost of about $2.6 million. Because school meal programs are based on poverty levels, “we should level the playing field.”
Rep. Hudgins wants the Asian Pacific Islander community to know that the first step is giving access to food. The second step is to provide culturally diverse food. He went to school in Hawaii, where rice was the norm. “Two scoops rice,” he said, adding, “It feels really good saying that.”
Rep. Mark Hargrove (R-Covington) says spending $2.6 million on “Breakfast After the Bill” legislation is not the wisest use of money, although he agrees it’s difficult for kids to learn when they’re hungry. “We hear rhetoric that hungry kids can’t learn, but I’ve seen with my own eyes that it can get done, and if this is really a priority, we can find a way without this bill,” he said in a recent interview. Rep. Hargrove has voted against the bill every time.
During House floor discussions about HB 1295, Rep. Hargrove said he heard kids don’t get breakfast in the school cafeterias before the start of the school day because often, they don’t arrive in time. “It seems there’s a lack of willingness to look at other alternatives, like adjusting the bus schedule by five minutes.” Rep. Hargrove also pointed out problems with childhood obesity. “I know this bill is to address hungry children, but this is something we need to be concerned about, that we put food constantly in front of kids that don’t need it.”
Rep. Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor) also voted against HB 1295 in 2014, 2015, and 2016. He said during House floor discussions that the bill would take money away from poor students. Rep. Young did not respond to a request for an interview.
HB 1295, if funded this year, would require the following:
- “Breakfast After the Bell” meal alternatives to traditional breakfasts served in cafeterias before the start of the school day. Alternatives include grab-and-go, easy to eat foods that can be brought into the classroom, breakfast served in the classroom, or second chance breakfast meals that can be eaten during recess or breaks.
- All high-needs schools must offer breakfast after the start of the school day beginning in 2017.
- Startup grants of $6,000 must be given to each school to help with implementation, equipment, staff, etc.
- Schools must give preference to foods that are healthy, fresh, and Washington-grown.
- Each food item must contain less than 25 percent by weight of added sugar (stricter than federal nutrition standards for school breakfasts).
- The OSPI must help schools implement “Breakfast After the Bell” programs, but it is not a state obligation for basic education.
Superintendent Dorn opposes HB 1295. He is concerned about the requirement that each food item have less than 25 percent added sugar. Such a requirement is difficult to enforce, said an OSPI spokesman. A supporter of the two school meal bills, Claire Lane, director for Anti Hunger and Nutrition Coalition, said, “All the evidence shows school breakfast makes a difference in school absenteeism, visits to the nurse’s office, suspensions, and even reading scores.”
“School breakfast is not a magic bullet for education, added Lane, “but unequivocally, it makes a notable difference. And it does this largely with federal funds.” Every school meal served gets a reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the highest reimbursement rate is for the lowest income students. “Serving more breakfasts will help the bottom line for schools and not be a cost to the state, after the initial startup grants,” said Lane.
Lauren McGowan, director of Family Stability for United Way of King County, testified in support of HB 1295. She said four out of five teachers have said their students come to school hungry. Barriers include transportation and stigma. Research has shown Washington has dropped from 39th to 45th after other states adopted “Breakfast After the Bell” programs.
Christina Wong, public policy manager of Northwest Harvest, also supports HB 1295, stating breakfast in particular is proven to combat absenteeism and obesity.
The Washington Department of Health did not take a position on the bill, but shared its impact review, which found strong or very strong evidence that HB 1295 has the potential to increase breakfast participation, particularly among low-income students and students of color. This may improve education outcomes, narrow educational opportunity gaps and income gaps, improve health, and decrease health disparities.
The FRAC, School Breakfast Scorecard 2014-2015 School Year, ranks states based on free and reduced-price school breakfast participation. The report is available online at: http://frac.org/pdf/School_Breakfast_Scorecard_SY_2014_2015.pdf. The FRAC Scorecard reports, “States not maximizing school breakfast participation not only miss out on the student academic and health benefits associated with the program, but also on significant potential economic activity that comes with millions of dollars’ worth of additional federal resources coming into the state and local communities.”