School & District Management Opinion

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

By Susan Graham — October 20, 2010 2 min read
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The front page of the Oct. 19 Washington Postfeatured a story on a new DC Schools initiative.

D.C. public schools have started serving an early dinner to an estimated 10,000 students, many of whom are now receiving three meals a day from the system as it expands efforts to curb childhood hunger and poor nutrition.

The article went on to explain that children in early care at 8 a.m. to the end of after-care at 6:30 could spend over 10 hours a day at school and that there are multiple indicators that many of these children live in homes where sufficient food is not available. So now, in addition to breakfast and lunch, dinner is served.

There is good reason to feed these children:

Kids who are hungry don't learn a lot. Kids who eat nutritionally deficient meals are more likely to be developmentally delayed. Kids who don't eat well are likely to miss more school and therefore fall behind. Kids who are hungry are likely to be cranky and aggressive or whiny and distraught.

Today there was a Post reader poll that asked: Should DC schools be serving dinner? Response choices were:

YES. Considering the high poverty rates among DC children it's the least the schools can do. NO. Serving dinner falls outside the jurisdiction of public schools. OTHER (Please leave comment.)

When I last looked, the votes were running Yes-53%, No-45%, Other -2%

Arguments, rather discussions, push news, especially on the internet. But the response choices are a beautiful example of leading. Of course children should be fed. They are children. But "...it’s the least the schools can do...”? Who determined that the schools ought be responsible for food insufficiency in DC? Or children’s health care? Or early care and after school care? And couldn’t "...outside the school’s jurisdiction” be more accurately expressed as "..beyond the schools’ responsibilities.”

Isn’t it a little disingenuous to see hunger, food instability and childhood obesity as education issues when the headline just above the “dinner at school” article was Income plummets for part-time workers in DC area?

How many of these children’s families are struggling; unable to find full-time work because hiring people to work part-time for 30 hours a week allows businesses to avoid providing benefits to their employees?

Parents are often unemployed or underemployed through no fault of their own. Yet the reader’s comments roll out suggesting that the best way to stop the cycle of poverty is to let the kids go hungry and reap the consequences of their parents’ inability or unwillingness to provide for them. It doesn’t sound like a viable solution to me, but that’s not an educator’s area of expertise. Maybe all those economists who have been busy helping us take care of schools could work on solving the problem of a living wage. We educators can probably bumble along on our own for a while.

It’s a pretty good bet that children who are sick, alone, or hungry are going to not achieve academically. But should responsibility be put on the schoolhouse table? And once hunger and good nutrition comes to school, should it be served up on the plate of the single most important factor in student success--the classroom teacher?

David Strong, culinary director for the catering service that prepares meals at seven public schools admits that getting kids to change their eating patterns is not easy, but apparently he’s identified a large part of the problem.

Strong said that

getting teachers to buy into the idea of healthy foods also has been a challenge. "These kids are getting wonderful from-scratch cooking, and then they go back to their homeroom and it smells like a quarter-pounder with cheese, where teachers are walking up and down the hall with their big Wendy's cups," Strong said. "Now we're a little bit past that."

And there you have it. I knew someone would be able to track down the the reason the kids didn’t like the three-bean salad and put sugar on their lasagna. It’s those teachers!

Good teachers, of course, should be willing to submit voluntarily to a random cheeseburger breathalyzer test and eat carrots and tofu every day. Sure, some would be tempted to cheat-- sneaking TicTacs and keeping Diet Coke in a brown paper bag hidden in the bottom desk drawer. And it will take courage to stand up to those entrenched caffeine users in the teacher’s lounge. But I’m sure there are reformers out there willing to take up the challenge! Because if we could just fire all the bad teachers, we could wipe out childhood obesity.

Seriously? It’s enough to make a me break out the emergency chocolate!

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.