Lunch ‘n’ Learn
At precisely 11:20 a.m. on a cold, late-fall morning, the bell rings at Anne Frank Elementary School in Philadelphia, Pa. A minute later, the morning stillness in the cafeteria is disrupted by the conversations and shouts of more than 200 second graders. They file into the room by classroom and go through the line to pick up their lunches. For the next couple of hours, the large room is filled with noise and energy.
Among the first group of students eating a school-provided lunch daily is Aidan, the 7-year-old son of Barbie Izquierdo. His sister, Leylanie, age 9, will eat lunch during her grade’s appointed time 40 minutes later.
This lunchtime routine plays out every weekday at the school and in schools across the United States. Whether it’s breakfast in the morning before classes or lunch at midday, the food provided to school children under national nutrition programs gives them the energy they need for the next few hours of learning. Meals provided after school or at day-care centers are also important parts of the national nutrition program.
While these children don’t think about it, the food that is subsidized by the federal government is quietly nourishing their bodies and brains so they can learn and grow. As Mickey Komins, the principal at Anne Frank Elementary—and probably any educator—will tell you, “We’re teaching for a lifetime — not just for that day.”
Teaching today and laying the foundation for students’ futures entail not just classroom instruction but making sure students have full stomachs so their minds can be fed. Feeding students involves staff at all levels in every school that carries out any of the government’s child nutrition programs, from administrators down through teachers and cafeteria workers.
One cafeteria worker who sits at a cash register at the end of the food line at the Philadelphia school tells a student, “Go back and get a fruit cup.” Workers know the students they see every day and make sure they are following the government’s nutrition guidelines by eating something from each of the major food groups — protein, grains, and fruits and vegetables. Cafeteria managers sometimes use students to test new menu items or encourage students to try a new vegetable. In these ways, students are also being educated on eating well and developing healthy habits for a lifetime.
There's such a thing as a free lunch
All Philadelphia public schools provide every student with a free lunch regardless of their family income, a practice at many schools across the country where a high percentage of students would qualify for free meals. At many other schools, family income determines whether a student pays the full price, reduced price, or gets a meal completely free.
At the end of the school day, Barbie comes to the school to pick up Aidan and Leylanie. Leylanie does her assigned chore of washing the dishes while Barbie sits with Aidan and helps him with his homework. Barbie asks her children every day what they had for lunch. She is reassured that they receive a solid, nutritious meal during their school day. One day a week, Aidan and Leylanie eat a free breakfast at school with their classmates, but they choose to eat breakfast at home on the other days.
“If school couldn’t provide lunch for children, there would be a lot of children going home with probably nothing to eat at all,” says Barbie. This isn’t the case for her children now, but it used to be. “There were times when I had to send my kids to bed because I didn’t have enough food for them to eat. So had they not received any type of food in school, then they would have had nothing.” The single mother was on SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) just a couple of years ago after losing her job.
Just like everybody else
Barbie moves to the kitchen to begin preparing dinner, a dish of noodles with broccoli. When dinner is ready, the family eats together at the dining room table. “People always think that we’re asking for a handout because we’re on welfare or public assistance,” explains Barbie. “And what we’re really asking for is the opportunity to show them that we’re just like you. We’re smart, we have wants, we have needs, we have dreams. We want the best for our kids just as they want the best for their kids. We just grew up in different circumstances.”
Barbie is currently taking classes toward her associate degree. She is interested in working in the field of criminal justice. “If I can build my life to a place where they don’t have to worry about their home being taken from them and they don’t have to worry about opening the fridge and nothing being in there, then I’ve accomplished everything.”
“What we’re really asking for is the opportunity to show them that we’re just like you.”
What Do We Want Congress to Do?
Bread for the World is urging Congress to pass a child nutrition bill that protects nutrition programs and gives more hungry children access to the meals they need to thrive.