For those who believe we have survived the economic downturn of 2008 and have righted the ship, today’s New York Times offers a very different perspective. Sam Dillon reports on the increase in the number of students now receiving free lunches from our public schools, noting a whopping 17-percent increase in the numbers over the last five years. According to the NYT, thanks to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, 21 million kids received free school lunches last year through a program that was once seen as a safety net for the poorest of the poor.
What’s even more startling is that “Eleven states, including Florida, Nevada, New Jersey, and Tennessee had four-year increases of 25 percent or more, huge shifts in a vast program long characterized by incremental growth.”
This seems to be the part of public education that we often don’t talk about, or don’t talk about enough. We acknowledge that poverty is a problem in achieving a high-quality education, but usually align such a discussion with per-pupil expenditures, the presence of white boards, and the general accumulation of “stuff” in our schools. Schools with “stuff” succeed, those without it struggle. But all the “stuff” doesn’t do you a lick of good if students are coming to school hungry and leaving even hungrier.
Fortunately, this is a topic that some are looking to bring front and center. Earlier this month, the Virginia School Boards Association (of which Eduflack is a member) announced its Healthy Foods Initiative. Led by new VSBA President Joan Wodiska, school districts across the state are beginning to work together to address the childhood hunger issue in the state. Wodiska’s video announcing the new initiative can be found here. VSBA is also in the process of creating a Healthy School Meals Database, highlighting some of the best practices that are being used to address the issue. This includes the work that Eduflack’s own Falls Church City School Board undertook to tackle this problem (which earned the city’s schools the prestigious NSBA Magna Award for its school meal efforts).
While I realize that Virginia is not alone in addressing this issue, the push now coming from VSBA is an important step. While we all recognize that student achievement is the ultimate goal, we must realize that many factors — effective teachers, research-based instructional materials, proper assessments, meaningful accountability, and, yes, healthy meals — all contribute to a student’s ability to succeed.
The statistics reported by Dillon and The New York Times are important. Of greater importance, though, is what we do with them. Do we act, or do we make excuses? Fortunately, places like the Old Dominion are choosing the former.