At Rosemary Elementary School, where 90 percent of students come from financially struggling families, the first hour of the day used to be punctuated by bickering, horseplay and emotional outbursts. Once the school began offering pupils free breakfast after the bell, the atmosphere became noticeable calmer.
“Now, when teachers are taking roll and talk about a certain topic during that morning meeting time, the [students] are nibbling on their food and drinking their milk, and you don’t see as many behavioral issues,” says Marla Sanchez, a spokeswoman for Campbell Union School District, which encompasses the K-8 campus. “It’s made a huge difference.”
For the past two school years, Rosemary Elementary administrators have allocated a portion of the school’s free-and-reduced-price lunch subsidies toward the first, and arguably most important, meal of the day. Kids volunteer to distribute the food, pushing little carts desk to desk to hand out warm breakfasts and cartons of milk to their peers.
“There’s definitely an observable difference in how engaged the kids are,” Sanchez says. “They’re not hungry, so they’re able to concentrate.”
“They’re not hangry,” she adds with a laugh, referring to the internet-slang portmanteau for “hungry” and “angry.”
Kim Flowers, a teacher on special assignment to improve student behavior through positive reinforcements, agrees that the post-bell breakfasts have had an “enormous impact.” Before, she says she’d typically get summoned to classrooms three times a day to deal with a student acting out. Almost invariably, the kid was just hungry.
“We’ve dramatically reduced those kinds of calls,” she says.
Throughout the nation, K-12 meal debts are skyrocketing. According to the School Nutrition Association, unpaid public school lunch tabs soared by 70 percent over the past six years. How those bills break down by local jurisdiction in the South Bay remains unclear—that information is tracked by each individual district.
In Santa Clara County, one of the wealthiest regions in the United States, more than a third of children grapple with hunger, according to research by California Food Policy Advocates. Yet just 68 percent of students poor enough to qualify for subsidized school lunches in this county are signed up to receive them; only 35 percent of students eligible for school breakfast take advantage of the program.
According to local school officials, that leaves nearly 30,000 children countywide without midday meals and 55,000 without breakfast.
When kids don’t eat enough, studies show their academic performance suffers, making them less likely to graduate and more likely to enter the low-wage workforce as an adult.
The gap in service—in Silicon Valley and beyond—has fueled a trend of news stories about “lunch-shaming” as much as feel-good features about celebrities, crowd-funding campaigns and enterprising young students paying off school lunch debts. Take, for example, media coverage of San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman cutting a $7,500 check two months ago to wipe out the lunch debt at Santa Clara’s Cabrillo Middle School. Virtually every article on the gift lauded the generosity of the gesture without questioning the systemic issues that created a need for charity in the first place.
For Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, the real solution lies not in paying off lunch debt but in making the meals free for students as a matter of course.
On Tuesday, Ellenberg asked her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors to explore the idea of a pilot program that would allocate $8 million over four years to provide school meals to 12,000 of the neediest kids in the county. That amounts to just 60 cents a plate.
Supervisor Joe Simitian, who co-signed the referral, joined a unanimous vote by the five-member board to authorize a study of the proposal, which garnered support from the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE), a host of local school districts and the non-profits Kids in Common, YWCA Silicon Valley and Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. County staffers expect to report back to the board with recommendations next month.
In a memo explaining her pitch, Ellenberg described how the county plays a vital role in addressing child hunger by administering CalFresh and nutrition programs for women and infants. But the memo goes on to state that federal rule changes designed to dissuade undocumented immigrants from accessing safety net services have made it increasingly difficult for the county to offer support to families in need.
At a press conference earlier this week, Simitian identified three barriers standing between eligibility and access to school meal subsidies: bureaucracy, fear and stigma. Extending the benefits to all students at high-poverty schools, he said, will hopefully counteract those factors by eliminating paperwork and assuaging concerns among immigrant families about information being shared with federal authorities.
Ellenberg says that certainly held true during her tenure as a San Jose Unified School District trustee. Before getting elected to the county board in 2018, she says she took part in an effort at SJUSD to encourage more families to sign up for meal subsidies by requiring all households to submit applications for the program. The plan upped participation rates by about 33 percent.
“But we still had that gap,” she recounts.
The disconnect between Silicon Valley’s economic realities and federal thresholds for public assistance eligibility only compounds the problem.
Many families that don’t fall below the national poverty line, and therefore don’t qualify for public nutritional benefits, still struggle to afford food because so much of their income goes toward housing costs. To qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch in this county, a student’s household must make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to $50,000 annually for a family of four.
“In the midst of so much plenty,” Second Harvest CEO Leslie Bacho laments, “we still see so many people struggling to make ends meet.”
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began offering additional funding through the Community Eligibility Provision for high-poverty schools to provide universal meals to students. Yet in the five years since launching the program, just half of eligible campuses nationwide have taken advantage of it because they lack the up-front cash to pay for meals until they receive federal reimbursement. In California, only 15 percent of qualified schools have availed themselves of the additional resources—the third lowest state participation rate in the nation.
California has taken some measures to tackle the problem. Last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law mandating school lunch as a right for all students, regardless of their ability to pay, and amending a requirement that kids with past-due payments be offered snacks instead. But without uniform federal policy, local districts continue to enforce a patchwork of rules that, in many cases, single out kids with unpaid lunch bills.
Nationally, there’s been some movement to remedy the problem. Sen. Tina Smith and Rep. Ilhan Omar—both Democrats from Minnesota—proposed the No Shame in School Act, which would ban schools from publicly identifying students whose families can’t keep up with lunch payments and prevent those bills from being sent to debt collectors. Omar teamed up with presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders on yet another bill that proposes to provide three meals a day to school kids regardless of family income. But congressional gridlock puts the chance of those passing at slim to none.
Meanwhile, the lunch tabs keep growing.
Food for Thought
Over the past century, school lunches have been touted, in turn, as a way to tackle poverty, assimilate young immigrants and build a unified civic identity.
By the end of the 19th century, when most states had already adopted compulsory education for minors, what students ate wasn’t widely considered a concern of the government. In the 1890s, however, reformers from the woman-led settlement house movement began providing cheap lunches to school kids to prevent malnutrition. Historians credit Philadelphia and Boston with launching the nation’s first official school lunch programs—for a penny a plate—in the mid-1890s.
Fast-forward to the Great Depression. With millions out of work and farmers unable to sell their food, the government assumed responsibility for scholastic meals as a way to distribute surplus agriculture and create jobs. Under the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, schools hired mostly women to cook and serve the surplus food to school kids, which helped farmers, put otherwise jobless adults into the workforce and ensured that children could rely on at least one square meal a day.
During both World Wars, the Department of Defense advocated for nutritional subsidies as a matter of national security. Concerns about war-readiness partly inspired lawmakers to enact the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act in 1946. Passed at the tail-end of WWII, it was named after a segregationist Georgia congressman who opined that students who ate healthy lunches of “hot soup” and “sweet milk” would be “much more able to resist communism or socialism.”
As part of the War on Poverty some 20 years later, Congress passed the Child Nutrition Act, which brought breakfast to public schools and put K-12 food programs under the aegis of the USDA. School-based food offerings expanded for another couple of decades until President Ronald Reagan began hacking away at K-12 nutrition programs by cutting $1.5 billion, upping eligibility standards and tweaking nutritional standards so that pickled relish and globs of ketchup would count as servings of veggies.
In her book School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, author Susan Levin describes how Reagan-era cuts left the door wide open for corporate contractors. Multi-national fast-food giants, soda companies and caterers cut profitable deals with districts in exchange for the privilege of selling to a young, impressionable captive audience. The result? A two-tiered system of free or cheap generic meals for some kids and name-brand lunches for those who could afford it.
Two generations ago, economist Amartya Sen’s Nobel Prize-winning research showed how hunger owes less to a dearth of food than a lack of access to it. Yet instead of democratizing food distribution through the K-12 commons, U.S. policy has generally fashioned school cafeterias to reflect the contrived scarcity of the marketplace.
The Meal Deal
As anti-poverty measures scale back under the Trump administration—including by way of a 2017 mandate that prevents the USDA from using federal funds to pay off student meal debt—state and local governments are increasingly stepping up to fill service gaps. In Vermont, a bipartisan bill wending its way through the legislature would make the northeastern state the first to offer universal meals to all K-12 students.
Now, halfway through her first term as county supervisor, Ellenberg has taken up the cause in Silicon Valley for the first time since her school board days. The proposal advanced by the Board of Supes this week would potentially extend free meals to every student at 84 eligible campuses in 17 local school districts.
SCCOE Superintendent Dr. Mary Ann Dewan says the county’s intervention might be the only chance—absent federal investment—for those campuses to afford to offer no-cost meals to kids. “Funding for schools is typically directed at academics, but this important program recognizes the important role of nutrition and health in student success,” she wrote in a statement endorsing Ellenberg’s referral. “This gap funding is the only way many schools can adopt universal meal programs.”
More than just eliminating debt, proponents of the policy say making meals a universal benefit can strengthen a sense of community.
“It brings everyone together,” says Edith Mouros, the interim superintendent of Luther Burbank School District, a one-campus jurisdiction in San Jose where roughly 90 percent of students come from low-income households. “Not only are they getting the nutrition they need to focus and do well in school, it becomes a shared experience for everyone.”
Luther Burbank rolled out its universal meal program at around the same time as the one at Rosemary Elementary. Two years into the Trump presidency and its hardline stance against immigration, school officials noticed a growing number of undocumented families refusing to sign up for subsidized meals for fear of sharing their residency status with authorities. With so many hungry students skipping meals, the district decided to cover the cost of extending the benefit to all 500-plus students.
“By offering this to everyone, we’ve taken away the challenge of having to collect applications from families,” Mouros says. “Before, I know our staff was spending a lot of time trying to track those down.”
Mouros says that if the county ultimately decides to fund Ellenberg’s proposal to support schools like Luther Burbank, her district would be freed up to allocate its own money to things like arts and enrichment programs instead of subsistence-level needs like feeding hungry kids. “I really hope they go through with this,” Mouros says. “It’s such a wonderful idea and we’re very supportive of it.”