Parents, students share: Oregon kids deserve better school meals

by Alison Killeen

The classroom was brightly colored and cheerful, with chairs assembled in a haphazard circle and conversation taking place simultaneously in Spanish and English. Parents, including a few of their kids, had gathered at an elementary school in eastern Portland to share their thoughts on school meals.

The group was engaged in a lively conversation about the importance of fruits and veggies when a third-grader piped up. “Actually,” he said, “I’m glad that I can eat lunch at school for free. But I feel bad for my friends that don’t qualify for it, because their families can’t afford it either.”

The room hushed as the conversation turned toward the community’s needs. Families shared about the rising cost of housing in their neighborhood, making in hard to pay for basics like heat and groceries. One parent wondered aloud why housing wasn’t taken into consideration when calculating eligibility for free and reduced priced school meals. Another suggested that parents could volunteer cooking meals to help keep costs low.

As an anti-hunger organizer, it’s long been my mission to increase access to school meals for all kids. We know the data: eating food at school is good for kids, especially those who may not know where their next meal is coming from. School meals provide stability, nourishment, and crucial energy to help level the playing field for all kids to be able to learn and thrive at school.

But, we need to do better. This past spring, community organizers held listening circles all across the state, connecting with 168 parents and kids to learn more about their experiences with school meals. From Gresham to Ontario, we heard from families wanting to ensure their kids had access to the nutritious food they needed to fuel their days at school.

We also heard from school nutrition directors, the everyday heroes who work long hours and pinch pennies to bring local produce into the cafeteria and plant gardens in the schoolyard. They highlighted struggles with too-short lunch periods and too-small facilities, too little diversity in existing recipes, and too little time to create their own.

Everyone brought forward their ideas, but perhaps the most common idea was also the simplest: Universal School Meals.

Providing school meals to all kids at no charge has become the centerpiece of the Hunger-Free Schools campaign, and after talking to kids and families, it’s not hard to see why. Eating breakfast and lunch at school levels the playing field for kids who just want to try their best at school. It’s more convenient for families with working parents. And because of the power of matching dollars from the federal government, we know that when more kids eat meals at school, nutrition directors have more dollars to spend on fresher food and improved facilities for cooking and serving meals.

Across the state, we heard a resounding chorus: Oregon’s kids deserve better when it comes to eating food at school. Working toward hunger-free schools will help us get there, when all kids can come to school expecting to receive the nutrition they need to get through the day. This year, let’s encourage Oregon legislators to get an A+ in nutrition. Let’s work for universal school meals in all of Oregon’s schools.