Food for Thought? Not With the Farm Bill

Monday, July 23, 2012

By Andrew Menaquale, EWG Government Affairs Intern

Sarah (not her real name), was usually one of the best students I met while teaching 8th grade math in a New Orleans public school. When I asked a question, her hand darted into the air as she politely, and more importantly quietly, waited to be called upon. Her answers were rarely off-target. The questions she raised were thought-provoking. She understood what she read. She refused to be defeated by my most challenging math problems.

Her parents were separating.  Occasionally she talked about her family’s uncertain future.  She was pretty good at not letting problems at home distract her.

But the day I introduced the Pythagorean theorem, she confused squaring a number with taking the square root. She added when she needed to subtract. She slouched in her chair and rested her head on the desk. Her eyes glazed over.

I asked Sarah to step outside the class. What’s going on?

“I came to school late today,” she said. “I missed breakfast in the cafeteria. My stomach is growling and I can’t concentrate.”

Pythagorean theorem day wasn’t the last time this 13-year-old missed a meal – and then missed everything that was said in class. She was physically present, but when she was hungry, her mind couldn’t engage.

She was not alone, though. Looking at her dazed face, I sensed she thought she was. Fully 95 percent of the students at the school, in New Orleans East’s Village de l’Est community, arrive with an empty stomach and received free or reduced-price meals, funded by the government. Just getting to class took a lot of energy and courage.  They threaded their way past street gangs, stray dogs rummaging through piles of trash and dilapidated houses abandoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These kids, in turn, were among more than 20 million students nationwide who receive government-supported free or reduced meals every day.

Yet as the farm bill works its way through Congress, some politicians want to slash the federal program that provides food for poor children. The House version of the farm bill  calls for an unconscionable $16.5 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps, which provides food purchasing help for needy families. Two to three million people, many of them children, would lose SNAP benefits.  (About half the current SNAP beneficiaries are children.)

While free lunch programs are not funded by SNAP, children in households that receive SNAP benefits are automatically eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. According to the Congressional Budget Office estimates, under the House farm bill, some 280,000 kids nationwide would become ineligible for the free school lunch program as their families are removed from SNAP.

It is tempting to think that these cuts would affect those abusing the system. The sad reality is that America’s youth will bear the brunt. Whenever I stood in front of my class, I could see first hand that federally-supported meals, either free school meals or SNAP-supported food, gave kids the opportunity to achieve. It’s that simple: if they were to perform well academically, they needed to eat.

The biggest effects of rolling back nutrition programs will be felt outside the lunchroom. Don’t be surprised if test scores and grades begin to fall for those who lose SNAP and school meal benefits.

Two national studies have demonstrated that elementary school children who come from households with insufficient food have below-average grades and test scores. One showed that kindergarteners from such households scored lower on math tests and learned less throughout the year than classmates living in food-secure homes. It found that children from hungry homes have poor overall health, leading to more school absences, and have difficulties with cognitive development, which can impair their mental capacities over a lifetime.

These reductions will have long-term implications for the competitiveness of our nation. If our country is to provide quality jobs and innovative technologies, our students need tools to succeed at high levels. If American competitiveness falters, our current budget problems will soon seem insignificant.

We must consider the far-reaching effects of cuts to nutrition programs before we have any serious discussions about deficit reduction. It is to the detriment of America’s families, our education system and ultimately our economy if we fail to provide our children with the opportunity to succeed.

And believe me, they can, given just a little help. Many of my students overcame the poverty and chaos of post-Katrina New Orleans and gained acceptances to some of the city’s best high schools. They displayed incredible resiliency in not giving in to their dangerous surroundings. They had an intrinsic love of learning. They inspired me whenever I felt overwhelmed or challenged. My problems paled in comparison to those they encounter daily .

Eighth grade graduation was the last time I saw Sarah. After her name was called for winning numerous awards, she rushed across the stage in excitement, but she always kept a humble grin. This was the wonderful balance of enthusiasm and modesty that I had the pleasure of witnessing most days in the classroom. After cake was eaten and pictures were taken, the kids went their separate ways. Sarah went on to high school – not her top choice, but she remained optimistic about her future. I left New Orleans to attend graduate school.   I can only hope her hopes weren’t dampened by decisions that are entirely out of her control.


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