News & Media

For some poor kids, school food is only food

February 2, 2011  |  The Denver Post  |  Link to article

On Monday morning at 8:30, the students of Fairview Elementary School settled in their classes, whereupon the lunch ladies brought them a breakfast of French toast and milk. Two hundred and eighty-seven meals were served, fewer than anticipated because 23 kids were absent and a handful ate at home.

How many kids get breakfast at school? I ask principal Norma Giron.

"Every single one from the neighborhood," she says. Though I shouldn't be, I'm surprised.

Fairview is the poorest school I know in the poorest neighborhood I know. I'm speaking in economic terms here. Sun Valley residents are touchy, rightfully so, about the way in which the word "poor" is wielded as a condemnation of all aspects of their lives. Poor equals irresponsible. Poor equals criminal and, most of all, poor equals lazy. As in: "As a family guy myself with children and grandchildren, I take a very strong responsibility to earn money to feed my own family."

Fairview is a good place to come if you want to see what taxpayer-subsidized breakfasts for low-income kids mean to students and schools.

Democrats in the state legislature are trying to find money to offset the cost of some of these breakfasts after three Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee refused to approve the extra $124,229 needed to get through the school year. The subsidy makes reduced-priced breakfasts free. Without it, money runs out at the end of March, leaving school districts to pick up the tab or parents who qualify for reduced-price breakfasts to pay 30 cents a meal per child.

Thirty cents is not a lot of money, you might say, and it is for only a couple months.

Neither is really the issue, and "family guy" Kent Lambert, Republican state senator from Colorado Springs, couldn't have been plainer about that. We're in the territory of government versus individual responsibility. No amount of symbolism is too small. No population too vulnerable. Charities could serve some kids. But that's not a safety net; that's a roll of the dice.

Do we have a vested interest in making sure public assistance acts more like a ladder and less like a crutch? Yes. Should people have children they cannot afford? No. Should parents be responsible for feeding their own children? Yes.

And now let us tiptoe beyond the refuge of the obvious to deal with reality. You happen to be living in Sun Valley, you're making about $650 a month, about one-third of which goes to rent. You have at least two kids. We're at month's end, which means household money has run out, and at Fairview that means some kids showed up Monday not having had dinner Sunday.

That's reality. It's not tidy, and it begs deeper questions that have to do with the proliferation of single-parent households and a lack of education and the related lack of opportunity.

I'm sure everyone at Fairview has an opinion on these, but what walks in the door is a kid with an empty belly. Every teacher on the planet knows kids don't learn when they don't eat.

"Stomachaches. Headaches. They fall asleep. They can't concentrate," Giron says.

Kids, like nearly all of those at Fairview, who come from families poor enough to qualify for free breakfasts will still get their free breakfasts. The specific legislative argument is over how to come up with money to make reduced-price breakfasts free.

But Giron finds the general message the Republicans on the budget committee are sending ominous. Without a subsidy, some parents would step up, she says. But others haven't learned basic parenting skills, or they leave the house for work or school at 7:30 or 8 a.m., which means their kids are home alone before school.

Without a subsidy, Giron says, "We'd buy milk and cereal ourselves because there's no way we'll let our kids go hungry."

Whatever happens in the legislature, it won't come to that in Denver. The school district, facing severe budget cuts itself, says it'll cover the cost. One way or another, kids will have their free breakfast because what's affordable and what's not cannot be measured in dollars alone.

Tina Griego writes Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at 303-954-2699  or tgriego@denverpost.com.