School bills tar­get hunger, sham­ing

Sur­plus food pantries, end to tak­ing away lunches pro­posed

The Dallas Morning News - - STATE - By EVA-MARIE AYALA Staff Writer eay­ala@dal­las­ Twit­ter: @EvaMarieAyala

AUSTIN — Law­mak­ers are try­ing to make it eas­ier to feed hun­gry kids while pre­vent­ing them from be­ing shamed when their fam­i­lies don’t have enough money to pay for lunch.

The House gave pre­lim­i­nary ap­proval Thurs­day to a bill that al­lows schools to cre­ate food pantries on cam­pus us­ing sur­plus from the cafe­te­ria that would other­wise be dis­carded.

An­other bill, by Rep. He­len Gid­dings, D-Dal­las, would pre­vent schools from tak­ing meals away from stu­dents whose ac­counts run out of money. The ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee is ex­pected to hold a hear­ing on the leg­is­la­tion next week. New Mex­ico re­cently passed a sim­i­lar law aimed at pre­vent­ing “lunch sham­ing.”

The bills come at a crit­i­cal time, as nearly 1 in 4 Texas chil­dren are food-in­se­cure, said Celia Cole, CEO of the non­profit Feed­ing Texas. Pub­lic schools are of­ten in the best po­si­tion to help them, she said.

Food for thought

“Sim­ply put, chil­dren who are hun­gry can’t learn,” Cole said. “So it is not just our moral re­spon­si­bil­ity to help feed them, but do­ing so is for the over­all im­prove­ment of ed­u­ca­tion and, in turn, the eco­nom­ics of our state.”

The food pantry bill re­ceiv­ing the pre­lim­i­nary nod Thurs­day would let schools use sur­plus food that’s pack­aged and un­opened, un­peeled fruits and un­cut or wrapped pro­duce.

Rep. Diego Ber­nal, D-San An­to­nio, said he wrote the bill be­cause he was haunted by sto­ries from teach­ers and prin­ci­pals about how their schools had to toss un­eaten food rather than give it to starv­ing chil­dren.

One prin­ci­pal ad­mit­ted that he left sur­plus cafe­te­ria food on a ta­ble for stu­dents to take as needed and in­structed his as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal to re­port him to the dis­trict of­fice, Ber­nal said.

“They are lit­er­ally throw­ing away hundreds of pounds of food ev­ery week when they re­ally want to give it to those kids who need it,” Ber­nal said. “It just re­ally struck me that this is such a ba­sic hu­man need.

“The idea of kids go­ing hun­gry — it haunts you.”

Schools can donate the food to non­prof­its. That some­times means groups take the food off cam­pus. But many or­ga­ni­za­tions don’t bother pick­ing up the food from cam­puses be­cause it’s a rel­a­tively small amount.

And be­cause of com­plex fed­eral and state laws, schools of­ten end up erring on the side of cau­tion and throw­ing the food away rather than giv­ing it to stu­dents.

Some cam­puses that tried to have “share tables” to of­fer un­used food to stu­dents — such as un­opened milk car­tons or other pack­aged goods — were ad­vised by school at­tor­neys to shut them down, sev­eral San An­to­nio-area nu­tri­tion of­fi­cials told a House com­mit­tee in March.

Ber­nal said his bill makes it clear that kids can have the food. It goes to the full House for a vote next week and is ex­pected to pass.

When a school lunch ac­count dries up, kids don’t al­ways know un­til they’re check­ing out in the line.

Cafe­te­ria work­ers are of­ten in­structed to take the child’s hot-lunch tray and re­place it with a cold sack lunch — usu­ally a cheese sand­wich. Mean­while, the hot lunch is thrown away in front of the stu­dent’s class­mates.

Gid­dings didn’t be­lieve such a story when she heard it from one of her staff mem­bers, who saw it hap­pen to her daugh­ter’s class­mate. But prin­ci­pals and others de­scribed sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. One of Gid­dings’ in­terns said he had been em­bar­rassed when peers teased him for hav­ing his tray taken.

“So kids pre­tend they’re not hun­gry and go through the day with­out food, be­cause they’re not sure that they’re go­ing to be able to keep the lunch or if it’s go­ing to be snatched away from them,” Gid­dings said.

‘Lunch sham­ing’

Ed­u­ca­tors and ad­vo­cates for chil­dren have told her that such “lunch sham­ing” means kids will pre­tend they’re not hun­gry and avoid the line al­to­gether.

Cur­rent law al­lows for chil­dren’s lunches to be taken away with no ad­vance warn­ing or at­tempt to con­tact par­ents. Gid­dings’ bill aims to pre­vent lunch sham­ing by es­tab­lish­ing two-week grace pe­ri­ods on de­fi­cient ac­counts, re­quir­ing par­ent no­ti­fi­ca­tion and en­sur­ing that kids re­ceive a reg­u­lar meal that doesn’t re­veal that their fam­ily might be strug­gling.

About 40 per­cent of Dal­las kids are food-in­se­cure, Gid­dings said, but not all of the chil­dren whose ac­counts run out of money are con­sid­ered poor. Of­ten it hap­pens when fam­i­lies sud­denly fall on hard times, she said.

2016 File Photo/Tom Fox

Stu­dents have lunch at A. Maceo Smith New Tech High School in Dal­las. Two state House bills aim to make sure kids don’t go hun­gry when their fam­i­lies can’t pay.

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