In early May, media brought attention to a specific instance of a problem that is widespread in the U.S. – school meals for children who do not qualify for free meals, but whose families are struggling to make ends meet.
The school district under the spotlight is in Rhode Island, but it could be almost any district in the US. We have a serious problem for “gap children” from families who live with food insecurity. These working families often look good on paper, but the reality is that they are just a life event – a prolonged illness, a car repair, or a furnace going out in January – from having to make some hard choices. This problem is just as significant in Idaho as it is anywhere else in America.
Anyone working with child nutrition in schools will tell you that the funding guidelines for determining eligibility for free school meals guidelines are almost arbitrarily low, many families who don’t quite qualify are struggling, and children are often uncertain about whether their parents can pay for meals. School nutrition workers, and teachers can tell you as well, that if a child isn’t eating at school, chances are, they are not eating at home either.
School districts try to avoid food shaming children if they can, but the reality is that most districts are not equipped to absorb the costs of unpaid meals for very long. Sooner or later, some child gets turned away, or she gets a “sunflower butter and jelly sandwich” or some token meal while her friends have their hot meal, and, of course, every one of his peers knows why he got the alternative meal.
We can cast blame all we want – at the government, the district, the families, the school, the economic environment – and there is plenty to go around. But when the rubber hits the road at that critical moment when the child stands in the lunch line, someone has to stand with her to make sure that meal is paid.
Fortunately, in Idaho, a group of forward-thinking professionals got together a few years ago to lay the groundwork for an innovative, accountable and effective way to address this problem in our state, where over 30,000 school children fall into the “gap” between free meals and being secure in paying for them. Feed the Gap works to address childhood hunger by making sure no child is turned away or treated differently at school meals because their family is having a hard time financially. Working closely with school districts, the emergency meals program covers these “Gap Children” for meals during a temporary family financial crisis without the price of stigma. The children never even know Feed the Gap has been at their side.
Feed the Gap is not yet available in all Idaho school districts, but we are working to expand coverage outside Treasure Valley. Generous support from individuals, corporations, foundations and businesses help make this all possible. As Feed the Gap expands, we look for local and regional support to help. Everyone knows that well-fed, well-adjusted children do better in school, and that’s good for everyone.
Businesses and individuals who would like to help can contact Feed the Gap through our webpage or by e-mail at email@example.com. Civic organizations can participate by inviting Feed the Gap to present to their meetings. There are a number of sponsorship opportunities available to help school districts throughout the state.
Feeding all our school children is simply the smart thing to do, and the right thing to do.
Anne Glass is founder and president of Feed the Gap.