Abundance, Excess, and Hungry Kids

On Thanksgiving, we celebrate abundance. Nobody gets turned away on Thanksgiving. Whether its Thanksgiving dinner with the family, Friendsgiving, or some other kind of -giving (like POLSgiving with my graduate student cohort), everyone is always welcome and there's always plenty to go around. Plenty of food, plenty of room, plenty of love.

Last week at POLSgiving, there were about fifteen people doing a tap dance in the kitchen to jockey for oven space; the spread took up the entire dining room table and every inch of the kitchen counter, and eventually dishes started being stacked on top of each other. Twenty-something people crammed into a two bedroom apartment to break bread, laugh, and celebrate. Most sat cross-legged on the floor. 

It was a great night. I felt fortunate to have so many things in such abundance.

Then today I read an article by Lee Cowan of CBS News. An excerpt: 

Schools have always been the front line in the battle against childhood hunger. It started with the National School Lunch Act, signed by President Truman in 1946, which gave federal money to states to fund school lunches. Today more than 30 million kids benefit. And yet, by some estimates at least one in six still doesn't know where the next meal is coming from.

One in six kids still don't know where their next meal will come from. That's a sobering thought when the turkey is thawing, the party mix is in bowls, and the fridge is full of all the fixings that will be cooked up over the next few days. There's a fine line between abundance and excess, and it's hard not to feel guilty. Everyone, especially kids, deserves access to healthy food. 

In the article, the Executive Director of a New Mexico non-profit called Appleseed described the evolution of school lunches: "School lunch is no longer this Brady Bunch convenience; it is a soup kitchen. It is a place where kids who haven't eaten at night or haven't eaten that weekend, go to get basic nutrition so they can function." In response to this evolution, and to "lunch shaming," where students bear the burden of a negative social stigma attached to free or reduced price lunch, many schools are moving to a model of providing free lunch to every child.

Oregon, thanks to the leadership of folks like my former boss Rep. Margaret Doherty and Partners for a Hunger Free Oregon, has begun down this road, with the passage of House Bill 2545 in 2015, which eliminated the reduced price lunch program and offered lunch free of charge to all qualifying students. It was a critical step that is no doubt making an impact on the lives of thousands of students and their families -- but there is so much more work to do. 

There is some resistance in the education world to the idea that schools should provide free food, medical services, counseling, and other social services for their kids. "Schools were designed to educate students, that's their purpose" they say. "How can we expect schools to provide services they weren't built to deliver?" they ask. Perhaps a better question is: how can we expect students to learn with an empty belly, or when they're sick, or if they're undergoing emotional trauma alone?

Every day I become more and more convinced that schools, by necessity, are going to have to adapt their models to accommodate the diverse range of needs that students bring with them to school every day. Poverty, homelessness, hunger -- none of this is going away anytime soon, but those things are clearly preventing us from achieving the education outcomes we want for all kids. So we get to choose how to respond: with patience and unreasonable optimism that these things will go away, or with clear eyes and a commitment to doing everything we can to help kids in the school system -- even when "everything" means more than just academics.