Oklahoma is notorious for its education system. We’re consistently on the bottom of the totem pole in terms of student achievement and state spending, having been ranked 48th out of 50 with a D+ in Education Week’s most recent “Quality Counts” report card. One of the most significant factors affecting our state’s embarrassing academic record is our poor attention to food.
According to the nonprofit Feeding America, one in six Oklahomans struggles with food insecurity (defined by the USDA as a lack of access to enough food for an active and healthy lifestyle). This number increases to one in four for kids in Oklahoma.
Many of these kids come to school from impoverished home lives, with their parents providing them little or no food while they’re at home. For these kids, the only meals they can get are the ones their school provides them.
Even though these kids typically qualify for free and reduced breakfast and lunch, some of them refuse this food because of the social stigma that surrounds it. They opt to go hungry instead, which, of course, negatively impacts their schooling.
With the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, the USDA created the Community Eligibility Provision program, which eliminates this stigma by providing universal free breakfast and lunch to all students in schools where at least 40 percent of those students are “directly certified” (meaning they receive SNAP or TANF benefits).
Under this program, schools will therefore no longer use parent income information from household applications, thus reducing paperwork for both administrators and parents. Schools who participate in the program will also be reimbursed by the government for all meals purchased.
Oklahoma’s schools, however, have been slow to accept the new program, largely because they believe that if they don’t provide the government with household application data, they will lose their Title 1 funds.
This is untrue for one reason: the government will indeed accept SNAP or TANF certifications under the Provision program in place of income information. We’re holding on to a financial myth.
This refusal by many of Oklahoma’s schools to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision program is made even more frustrating by the fact that, according to a recent Tulsa World article (which got the following data from the advocacy group Hunger Free Oklahoma), last year Oklahoma failed to use approximately $17 million in federal funds, money that could have very easily been used to purchase meals under the Community Eligibility Provision.
According to data from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, in the 2010-2011, 2011-2012, and 2012-2013 school years, school lunch programs were allotted a measly $4.9 million out of the state’s nearly $2.5 billion budget. If you do the math, that means that we spent roughly 0.2% of our budget on food for kids.
Meanwhile, in the 2012-2013 school year, we spent $33 million on textbooks alone, and another $47 million on academic remediation, AP incentives, and “Reading Sufficiency.”
It seems as though our education system’s priorities are mixed up: in order for a kid to read sufficiently and understand the material in a textbook, he has to focus on the words and not on his growling stomach. Food comes first, regardless of how badly we want to improve our academic record.
There are, however, some hesitations to accepting the Community Eligibility Provision program into our schools. First, because the program is tied to Title 1 funds, which require schools to send in their academic data to the US Department of Education, it would be difficult for us to receive these funds with our current academic data. (In 2014 after Oklahoma repealed Common Core, the Department of Education denied a waiver that would allow our state to use federal funds as we wish until we could meet federal academic standards.) The lack of these funds would weaken our ability to purchase meals under the Community Eligibility Program.
Second, it would be tricky to provide universal free lunch to one school and not another, especially if that second school also has a significant number of directly certified students.
Lastly, with the appointment of the new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, it will be difficult to predict how public school funding will be affected in the future. Programs like Community Eligibility may be weakened or, worst case scenario, scrapped altogether.
Despite these hesitations, however, I believe it is in our state’s best interest to adopt the Community Eligibility Provision program for all of our eligible schools because it not only provides a secure source of food for kids who really need it, but it eliminates the potential for social stigma surrounding aid of this sort, and it makes that first crucial, biological step in improving our kids’ academics.