Hunger can have a far more damaging effect in a child's life than a stomachache. Unable to concentrate in school and deprived of nutrition, a hungry child can suffer the consequences for a lifetime. That's why expanding school nutrition programs is a logical step at a time when more Tampa Bay children are living in poverty. Ensuring that children are ready to learn is in the entire community's interest.
The Pinellas County School District said this week that it will partner with YMCA after-school programs to serve free hot dinners at schools where a high number of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches. This benefit for needy families is part of a spreading federal effort under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The Hillsborough School Board approved a similar dinner program at four elementary schools in February, and the Hernando School District plans to do likewise at three schools in October. The Pasco School District is investigating expanding its nutrition programs but has no concrete plans to participate.
It should. More than 36,000 Pasco schoolchildren can take part in the discounted lunch program for low-income families, the common measure of juveniles living at or near poverty levels. Across the four-county region, 217,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a nearly 24 percent increase over five years ago.
Breakfast and lunch are the customary meals provided by public schools, but the 2010 federal law set aside $4.5 billion in part to take nutritional programs into the dinner hour. An expanded and easier-to-navigate food program — Florida also is joining a separate initiative providing free lunches to all students at schools in high-poverty areas without requiring families to formally apply for the benefit — is intended to keep hunger from distracting children's abilities to learn. School meal programs are credited with decreasing discipline cases and student tardiness while boosting school attendance and children's attention in the classroom.
Convenience is a key to participation. In Hernando County, for instance, the school district's summer nutrition program delivered 2,200 lunches to children at four rotating community sites last summer. This year, it served 1,500 meals in just the first 18 days, a projected 51 percent increase for the summer, attributed largely to a schedule switch. Similarly, turning neighborhood schools into congregate feeding sites during the school year is economical and practical. It utilizes existing kitchen equipment and staff at the school district while reaching a captive audience of children already there for after-school care.
The dinner program will put hot meals like chicken and mashed potatoes or spaghetti and meat sauce — not peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — into the stomachs of children staying after school. It also is reasonable to invite parents to join the school dinners if they are willing to pay a nominal fee. That can provide an ancillary benefit by presenting schools with a better chance to engage parents in their children's education.
Children distracted by hunger can't reach their potential. Expanding school nutrition programs gives them a fighting chance.