Today, Clayton Burch, interim state Superintendent of Schools with the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE), announced that our state public education system has provided over one million meals to students since our state school system was shut down on March 16 due to the pandemic.
During this announcement at the Governor’s press conference, he told the story of an 8-year-old calling her central school office line to find out when the bus would be delivering food near her home, to make sure she and her sister could meet the bus on time. It’s a moving story– it shares the importance of this service, and the needs of our most vulnerable kids. And, it shows that at least some of our kids, during this crisis, are looking out for themselves, rather than a parent or guardian playing that role.
For the rest of the day, I’ve watched Superintendent Burch’s words play out on social media, and while many expressed gratitude and support for WVDE, some have shared some surprisingly negative comments– really ugly stuff about bad parenting, schools caring more about food than education, people “gaming the system,” and simply put, disparaging the poor.
So, I’d like to elaborate on some point to clarify WVDE’s role in feeding students that may be helpful as we collectively engage in this discourse:
- The National School Lunch Program was established by President Harry Truman in 1946. It’s been around for a long time; schools didn’t just “get in the business” of feeding kids over the past few years.
- This feeding program is a nationwide program– not just here in West Virginia. Over 4 million children participated in 2016.
- WVDE’s Office of Child Nutrition works with the USDA to administer these feeding programs. Apologies– I can’t find the date when this office was established. It’s been around for as long as I can remember. And they’ve won a few national awards for their program.
- The Office of Child Nutrition was approved for four USDA waivers to help feed kids during the pandemic. (Thank you, Senator Manchin) You can learn all about these waivers here.
- Importantly, West Virginia’s children are disproportionately affected by poverty. About 21% of all children living in the United States live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold. Look at the percentage of kids in your county who live in poverty. You’ll see percentages significantly higher than the national average. These are the kids who qualify for free and reduced meals at school.
- 62% of these kids have at least one parent who is employed, either full-time or part-time.
And so, schools across the country have been feeding kids for many, many years. Free and reduced meals, based on family income, is nothing new. It’s a shame that families have to rely on it, but it’s also incorrect and unfair to assume folks utilize the program because they’re unemployed or don’t care for their kids.
Having said all that, if you’re just waking up to the fact that our schools have been, and will be, playing a really important role in keeping kids fed during this pandemic, there’s a lot more to consider. The New England Journal of Medicine published a perspective piece about this issue on March 30 titled “Feeding Low-Income Children during the Covid-19 Pandemic.” It had this takeaway:
We should examine in real time the strategies being used, acknowledge the broader political landscape in which they’re being implemented, and improve our ability to adapt how, when, and where we provide nutritional support to children.
In West Virginia, a great deal of autonomy is given to county school systems to coordinate services, and some have struggled and had to suspend their programs over the past few weeks to tweak the logistics. Some are frustrated. Some, like those today on social media, seem to believe folks are taking advantage of the system.
Listen: these times we live in are frightening. Now more than ever, with over 90,000 unemployment filings to date in our state, kids and families are going to be in need.
If you are someone who is just now learning that there are hungry kids in our midst, that schools play a huge role in keeping them fed, and that more people may be showing up than expected to access food now that so many are unemployed, you’re offering zero help to improve the situation by complaining about the system and the families that have to rely on it on social media. The kids can see you, folks. Their lives are frightening enough as it is right now. Let’s not heap shame and blame on top of that.
Here’s the list of county feeding sites. Many programs are struggling and may need your help. Keep your eyes on the work they do. Show gratitude, lend a hand, and maybe sometimes, call them out on judgmental behaviors or bad policies that lead to compromising social distancing or requiring kids to be present at pick up points. We’re all in this terrible time together. Rest assured, the kids will remember this time for the rest of their lives. Let’s hope they remember us as people who worked together to keep them fed.