The Other 60 Percent

Tackling child hunger, better school food

Sen. Michael Bennet and Kevin Concannon, the federal undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, joined some Thornton second-graders on Tuesday for a healthy lunch of burritos, corn, salad and fresh oranges.

Sigifredo Orona, left, and Michael Zamarano, second-graders at Coronado Hills Elementary School in Thornton, have lunch with U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet on Tuesday in their school lunchroom.

Afterward, they chewed the fat with some adult heavy-hitters determined to make Colorado’s school lunches better for kids and to make good food in general easier to come by for the estimated 17.2 percent of Colorado children who lack enough food to meet their basic needs.

“It’s important, as we think about what we do, that we listen to our communities and inform our legislation with what you say, rather than the other way around,” Bennet, the state’s Democratic junior senator, told a group of about three dozen people participating in a roundtable discussion on childhood hunger at Coronado Hills Elementary School.

“We just enjoyed a healthy lunch,” said Concannon, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “A hundred thousand-plus schools in the United States served lunch today but many of them weren’t as healthy as the lunch we had. They don’t reflect the kind of improvements we know need to be made.”

Bennet and Concannon were anxious to promote two pieces of legislation that Bennet has had a hand in — the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a 10-year, $4.5 billion program to reduce childhood hunger and improve the quality of food available to children; and the Growing Farm to School Programs Act, a bill Bennet is co-sponsoring to expand school programs to serve locally-grown fresh produce in school cafeterias.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry with bipartisan support last month, though the amount funded is far less than the $10 billion President Obama had requested. Bennet, who’s in a primary fight with former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, is a committee member.

The Growing Farm to School Programs Act was introduced in the Senate last month. It has also been assigned to the Agriculture committee, though it has not yet been heard.

Roundtable participants – who included representatives of anti-hunger programs, school district food service directors, charitable foundations and government agencies – offered their observations on what’s working and what needs fixing.

Many said the biggest thing that needs fixing is the state’s ability to get food benefits to needy people.  The technological problems that have bedeviled the Colorado Benefits Management System, the computer system the state uses to sign people up for food stamps and other benefits, have been well-documented.

“Colorado does a poor job of getting families who are eligible onto food stamps,” complained Kathy White, program director for the Colorado Center on Law & Policy. “While I think there are good things happening in Colorado – like the Campaign to End Childhood Hunger and schools working with health care providers – there’s lot of room for improvement, and first and foremost is our technology.”

Bennet acknowledged the problems caused by CBMS. He said he amended the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act to direct the federal government to provide better technical assistance to states and to help states create data programs that actually work.

“This has plagued school districts, too, and there’s no reason for it,” Bennet, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent, said of the ongoing computer glitches.

Food service directors said their best-laid plans are sometimes frustrated by government regulations on commodity purchases on the one hand, and school priorities that give short shrift to lunchtime on the other.

“There’s room for improvement in the commodity program,” said Leo Lesh, director of DPS’ Department of Food and Nutrition. “I have to fit my menu to what I can buy and it shouldn’t be that way. I should be able to buy what I need.

“And we need to make meals an important part of the school day rather than a disruption to the school day. Principals who need an extra five minutes will squeeze it out of lunchtime, leaving just 20 minutes for lunch.”

Jeni Nagel of Ela Family Farms urged schools to do more to police the food choices given to children. “You can’t expect kids to choose an orange over Cocoa Pebbles,” she said. “We need to deal with the choices we give kids.”

Nagel noted that in many school kitchens, the most-used utensils are box cutters and can openers. Some school cafeterias are ill-equipped to deal with fresh produce. “There’s even resistance to selling fresh peaches because they would have to wash those peaches first,” Nagel said.

The Growing Farm to School Act would connect local farmers and schools to provide locally grown produce to schools and to give farmers a new market for their products. Concannon says having locally-grown products available encourages youngsters to eat fresh fruit and vegetables. “It has an effect,” he said. “I’ve seen it in schools from New England to California.”

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act also provides funding for Farm-to-School programs. Other provisions of the act include:

  • Expanding after-school meals for at-risk children
  • Connecting more eligible low-income children with school meals
  • Helping schools improve the nutritional quality of school meals
  • Establishing national nutritional standards for all food sold in schools
  • Strengthening local school wellness policies
  • Helping schools protect their food service budgets

Bennet offered another amendment to the bill to authorize the creation of “State Childhood Hunger Challenge Grants.” The grants would allow states to collaborate with other partners to target communities with a higher prevalence of child hunger.

Click here to read an Education News Colorado story about the farm-to-school movement.

Poverty in America

Memphis woman’s tragic death prompts reflection. Could vacant schools help in the fight against homelessness?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Graves Elementary School in South Memphis has been boarded up since its closure in 2014. It's one of 10 vacant school buildings in the city.

The death of a Memphis woman sleeping on a bench across from City Hall in frigid temperatures unleashed a furor of frustration this week across social media.

As Memphians speculated how someone could freeze to death in such a public place, some pointed to limited public transportation, one of the nation’s highest poverty rates, and entry fees to homeless shelters. The discussion yielded one intriguing suggestion:

About 650 Memphis students were considered homeless during the 2015-16 school year, meaning their families either were on the streets, living in cars or motels, or doubling up with friends and relatives.

At the same time, Shelby County Schools has an adequate supply of buildings. The district had 10 vacant structures last fall after shuttering more than 20 schools since 2012, with more closures expected in the next few years.

But what would need to happen for schools to become a tool against homelessness? Some cities already have already begun to tap that inventory.

Shelby County Schools has been eager to get out of the real estate business, though it’s not exactly giving away its aging buildings. In 2016, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the school system should “repurpose some of these buildings and … anchor some of these communities and rebuild and refurbish these communities instead of tearing stuff down.” The conversation was part of Memphis 3.0, the city’s first strategic plan since 1981 to guide growth for years to come.

District policy allows for “adaptive reuse” to lease vacant buildings for community development including affordable housing, community centers, libraries, community gardens, or businesses. A change requires a community needs assessment and input from neighborhood leaders and organizations before the school board can vote on a recommendation.

But proposals to transform schools into housing haven’t emerged in Memphis.

The Memphis Housing Authority, which oversees federal dollars for housing development, has a two-year exclusive right to purchase two former schools near downtown. But talk has focused on using that space for an early childhood center, not housing, according to High Ground News.

Under state law, districts must give charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly funded, serious consideration to take over a closed building.

That has happened for some Memphis schools, but high maintenance costs for the old buildings are a major deterrent. They also present a significant challenge for any entity looking to convert a structure into a homeless shelter or affordable housing.

Of the district’s 10 empty school buildings, most have a relatively low “facility condition index,” or FCI rate, which measures the maintenance and repair costs against the current replacement cost. The higher the number, the less cost-effective.

*as of October 2017

The idea to turn vacant school buildings into livable space is not new. Across the nation, some communities have found workable solutions to address the excess real estate.

In Philadelphia, a nonprofit organization transformed an empty four-story elementary school that was frequented by trespassers and drug users into housing for 37 homeless veterans and low-income seniors. The $14 million project, led by Help USA, took advantage of federal dollars set aside to house homeless veterans.

Last summer, leaders in Daytona Beach, Florida, pitched in $3.5 million in public funds to help a local nonprofit convert an elementary school into a homeless shelter. Despite pushback from neighborhood residents, the plan secured a unanimous vote from its county council.

In Denver, school officials proposed turning an elementary school into affordable housing for teachers to combat expensive living costs and rapid gentrification. That idea is still up in the air, with some residents lobbying to reopen the building as a school.

Detroit is riddled with empty school buildings. Developers there are buying up properties to repurpose for residential use as they wait to see what the market will bear. The city’s private Catholic schools have seen more success in transforming old buildings into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building because they are smaller, easier to renovate, and don’t have the same deed restrictions as public schools.

The same appears to be true in Baltimore, where a nonprofit group converted a 25,000-square-foot Catholic school into housing for women and children. The $6 million project, completed last month, uses federal housing vouchers to subsidize rent.

In Memphis, the community is still assessing what resources need to be tapped in response to this week’s tragic death.

“Simply dismissing this as a tragedy will only allow us to continue to absolve ourselves from the apathy and selfishness that allow people to go unseen,” said the Rev. Lisa Anderson, a Cumberland Presbyterian pastor who is executive director of the city’s Room in the Inn ministry.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.