A recent article in The Smoky Mountain News highlights the issue of child hunger in western North Carolina. Of the 700,000 children in North Carolina who qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, only 53,000 (about 8 percent) get free meals during the summer, said Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator.
The United States Department of Agriculture reimburses approved programs $1.85 per breakfast, $3.25 per lunch and 76 cents per snack for children to have free and reduced meals during summer programs. But nonprofits, schools or other programs have to be in charge of preparing the food and keeping up with the paperwork required for reimbursement.
Should parents and guardians be the ones responsible for making sure that children are fed? Of course. But it doesn't happen in all families, for a variety of reasons. In the meantime, the schools have access to funding, as well as the facilities and equipment to do it, along with detailed knowledge of which children need the help. If the schools and counties work together with local service agencies and churches during the summer, perhaps they could come up with solutions on how to help parents take on this responsibility once the school year resumes, so that by next summer children's meals are taken care of by their parents. In the meantime, children are going hungry this summer.
In our neck of the woods, Jackson and Swain County Schools have picked up this ball and are running with it. Both counties have meal programs and are looking to double the number of children fed from last summer. Any child up to age 18 can simply go during the right time to an open meal site and get a free meal, no paperwork necessary. (Proof of lower-income status isn’t required in counties where more than 50 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced lunches during the school year.)
In Jackson County, the school system and the churches are joining forces to make sure that hungry children eat. Led by pastor Jeffery Vickery at Cullowhee Baptist Church, volunteers deliver lunches to children at four free meal sites in the Tuckasegee, Cullowhee and Canada communities every weekday this summer to expand the reach of the program to more remote areas. Pastor Vickery met with school officials to determine which areas had the poorest children and estimated the number of meals to prepare based on how many kids get off at nearby school bus stops. Staff at Smoky Mountain High School prepare the lunches, meeting strict government guidelines.
Swain County Schools will offer breakfast and lunch at the Swain Middle School cafeteria seven weeks during the summer in a program operated by the schools food services department.
The lone holdout is Macon County Schools. In Macon County, 66.6 percent of the 4,239 students enrolled in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. There are no programs in place to ensure those 2,825 children get good nutrition during the summer. Cynthia Ervin, North Carolina summer food service programs coordinator, told The Smoky Mountain News, “They just haven’t stepped up to the plate.”
This lack of support of our county's neediest students is egregious, but not surprising. The leadership of Macon County Schools is much more focused on building new schools (with fancy brass plaques listing the names of those who pushed the building projects) than it is in serving the needs of children, particularly the children who need their help the most. I saw this firsthand when I recently spoke at the first annual WNC Graduation Summit in Cherokee, a day designed for local school districts to come together to discuss the problems that lead to dropping out of school and work on crafting action plans for the upcoming school year.
Swain County Schools brought their entire administrative team, including the principals of all of their schools, even the elementary school. So did Clay and Graham Counties. Southwestern Community College sent a team to work with the K-12 districts as they developed action plans. Western Carolina University sent a team to help as well. Swain and Clay counties even sent their county and town managers. Todd Leek, town manager in Hayesville, explained to me, "This is not just a school issue. This affects our entire business community. That's why I'm here."
Regina Mathis Treadway, principal of Swain County High School, spoke during the panel discussion. She commented that SCHS loses the equivalent of an entire graduating class every four years to dropping out. Scott Penland, superintendent of Clay County Schools, pointed to the Clay County Communities in Schools executive director, Theresa Waldroup, as one of the prime reasons why Clay County starts its dropout prevention work in kindergarten. Students who are hungry, who need clothes and school supplies, get fed and get what they need, because otherwise they are not ready to learn.
Of all the WNC counties and the reservation school system, only one district did not bring a team to work on an action plan after lunch: Macon County Schools. To be fair, Superintendent Brigman did attend the morning session, which consisted of a speaker who talked about mentoring. But he disappeared after lunch, when the real work started.
I suppose that Mr. Brigman had more pressing priorities to look after, such as hiring a basketball coach and making sure that he gets enough funding to keep building new buildings. Perhaps he will send the newspapers a detailed explanation of the county's comprehensive, research-based action plan for addressing the dropout problem, assuming that such a plan even exists. I've seen plenty of boasting that the dropout rate has been "cut in half." Horse manure. Let's see the ten-year trend report on how many students in grades 9-12 have reportedly left the district as "homeschoolers." I'll wager that there is an increasing trend in "homeschool" that corresponds to the "decreasing" dropout rate. Homeschoolers do not count against school districts as dropouts, but instead can be coded as transfers. All that a district needs to code a child as "homeschool" is a parent's signature on a piece of paper provided, of course, by the school district.
Maybe Mr. Brigman will also explain why our district eliminated a half-time teaching position in order to hire a half-time graduation coach who is also the basketball coach, when Communities in Schools of North Carolina helps districts write grants to fund full-time Executive Directors for each county who do precisely the type of work that a graduation coach does, at no cost to the school district. The grant provides a full year of service to establish the program, then the community comes together to decide how to continue the funding, whether by the local school district, the county or town government, or by writing additional grants. This was all discussed during the after-lunch action planning, but Mr. Brigman had already left by then. This information was also provided to MCS via email, without response.
The main thing I would like to see explained first, though, is why our neighboring district superintendents can make sure that hungry students are provided food in the summertime, while our district leader dithers over basketball coaches and new buildings.