LEARNS’ missing ingredient: universal free meals | Opinion

By EMILY GARRISON | Arkansas Advocate

Earlier in my career, I held a position as a director in a school food pantry. Every Friday after school, I dedicated my time to filling backpacks, ensuring that students had enough food to get them through the weekend.

One student stands out in my memory from that time: Isabella, a sophomore in my class. Whenever she came to collect her family’s food, our interactions were minimal. She signed out her backpack, often avoiding eye contact. This reserved demeanor was mirrored in the classroom — little engagement and a tendency to blend into the background. She often seemed distracted during lessons and avoided interactions as much as possible. When Isabella graduated, I received an unexpected email from her — the most she had ever communicated with me. It read, “Thank you for your help, Mrs. G. My mom and I appreciate it.”

My time in the school pantry showed me firsthand that food insecurity can significantly affect a child’s focus in the classroom. I am not the only educator in Arkansas who can relate to this experience. Whether they discreetly share a granola bar with a hungry student or contribute a few dollars of their own money for a student’s lunch, many educators in our state provide more than daily lessons to help kids learn.

These acts exemplify our HEART work as educators — taking care of kids and removing potential inequities to learning. This HEART work is more important than ever during this season of giving and in light of the news recently that Arkansas leads the nation in food insecurity.

Likewise, the Arkansas’ LEARNS Act calls for a substantial investment in our students’ education. In fact, we invest more in education than any other state in the region. LEARNS brings positive changes in literacy, safety, transportation, and teacher pay at the cost of nearly $300 million in the first year.

This sizable spending begs the question: Why were universal free school meals not included in LEARNS as a means to enhance academic outcomes and close a potential equity gap?

There should be an amendment to LEARNS to reallocate a portion of the spending for universal free school meals. With $300 million earmarked for  implementation in year one, surely there is room in the budget. Kids going hungry at school requires a new look at how funds are being allocated. Arkansas legislators must find the money somewhere; partnering with a nonprofit or applying for more federal grants are also possibilities.

In addition, a re-examination of the criteria for free and reduced lunch is due. Under federal guidelines, a family of three must make below $46,000 annually to be granted reduced school meals; this can be adjusted to offset inflation and serve a wider range of families who may be struggling in the current economy. If research is needed to justify feeding all kids in one of America’s poorest states, there are 62 districts here that participate in the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision, which funds universal meals if 40% or more students qualify for free lunch. The state should collect data in these low-income schools to see the impact on attendance, performance, and student health.

Should the state Legislature make universal free lunch come to fruition, Arkansas would join at least eight other states in illustrating that food insecurity will not be a barrier to a child’s ability to learn. One in 5 Arkansas children suffer from food insecurity; in a class of 30, that is six students who may be unable to focus on the lesson because of hunger. In a teacher’s full schedule of 150, that’s 30 students who are more worried about their next meal instead of taking notes on a lecture. It would be a bold move on behalf of our families in poverty — almost 17% — to eliminate the pain of hunger at school, and ultimately set these students up for success in the classroom.

Examining ways to improve academic performance starts with meeting essential needs first. In my experience with students like Isabella, who represent the most at-risk in our population, I learned the intense impact a hungry stomach has on a child’s learning. This should not be left on school personnel solely to stand in the gap for kids. We need support from policymakers to create a system that fills every students’ stomach- before we can fill their minds.

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