By Amanda Litvinov and Rebecca Logan
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The first school employee a student sees in the morning is often a food service worker. In too many cases, those staff members see a child who has had little or nothing to eat since the last time they were at school.
That was just one of the realities that school food service professionals shared with members of Congress at a roundtable on Capitol Hill hosted by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) on Thursday.
“When they come to me, I don’t know when they had their last meal, or when they will have their next meal,” said Shan Lighty-Greene, a school nutrition manager at Albert Hill Middle School in Richmond, Virginia, in Rep. Scott’s district.
She was one of three food service employees invited to talk about their work with students with Scott and five of his colleagues from the House Education and Workforce Committee—Reps. Hinojosa (D-TX); Davis (D-CA); Bonamici (D-OR); Jeffries (D-NY); and Takano (D-CA). The Committee is expected to mark up the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFK) this spring.
“I am always giving away food,” said Pat Lieberman, a food service professional at War Memorial High School in Sayreville, N.J.
“Look, no one is going to come to me if they aren’t hungry. And if you’re hungry, I’m the person you want to see,” Lieberman said. She emphasized how much the teens she serves appreciate the fresh produce available to them at school.
The National Education Association (NEA) strongly supports maintaining HHFK’s nutrition guidelines, which increased the amount of fruits and vegetables required in school meals, in the reauthorization. The USDA reports that over 95 percent of schools are successfully meeting the standards, which also reduced the amount of sugar, sodium, and fat in the foods schools serve.
NEA also supports protecting community eligibility, a provision that helps ensure that all students in high-poverty schools can easily access school meals, without the stigma of being singled out as a student from a poorer family.
Currently, more than 18,000 schools across the country have adopted community eligibility to provide free meals for all students instead of processing applications from individual students, according to a new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Food Research & Action Center.
At the Hill roundtable, the food service professionals said that another way that the child nutrition law enhances their ability to care for students is by supporting professional development and trainings provided to food service managers and staff.
Both the House and Senate proposals take steps forward on both of these issues, and NEA continues to emphasize the need for trainings to take place during regular working hours to ensure the broadest possible participation among staff who often do not make a living wage and must work multiple jobs to support their families.
Donna West, a child nutrition manager at Brownwood Elementary in Scottsboro, Alabama, describes herself as a passionate supporter of HHFK. She said she appreciated having a forum with members of Congress as they take on the important task of reauthorizing the law, which enables school food service workers to do all they can to help kids succeed at school.
“I want to be a voice for the workers,” said West. “But the true heroes are the ones who are in that kitchen today while I’m here.”