Schmick: Why a vote for healthy school lunches for all will save lives

William Schmick
Valley Voices
William Schmick

Ask any teacher and they will tell you a story about hunger affecting their classroom: Kids aren’t eating at home and are then skipping school lunch because of the stigma of being on a “welfare” program. That’s usually the end of the story. Here is the beginning: A local teacher told me that nine times out of 10, a student who misbehaves in class is hungry. “Have you eaten today?” asks the teacher, while opening their desk drawer filled with snacks purchased out of pocket.

In 2020, according to Feeding America’s Map the Meal Gap, an annual study that tracks food insecurity, almost one-fifth of Eagle County parents reported that their kids did not have enough to eat. This August, one-fourth of Colorado children did not have enough to eat because food was unaffordable.

Hungry kids have more difficulty concentrating and are “linked to higher levels of behavioral and emotional problems from preschool through adolescence,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The most prevalent of these emotional problems are anxiety and aggression.

Studies have shown depression and suicidal thinking are tied to child hunger. Colorado has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the nation, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  and mountain towns are at significantly increased risk. Hungry children experience stigma, adding to the anxiety and aggression that directly influences increasing rates of youth and adolescent suicide.

Some school cashiers have taken lunch trays away from children with so-called lunch debt, giving them cheaper replacements that have become known as a “stigma sandwich.” Some schools stamp the student’s hand with a message to parents: “I need lunch money.”

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Some children choose to skip lunch altogether and stay hungry.

“If you pull a group of kids together and say, talk to me about what you see amongst your friends, they all talk about anxiety, depression, bullying and wanting to fit in,” said the director of the Aspen HOPE Center following the suicide of an Eagle County 12-year-old.

In addition to being prone to aggression, anxiety, and stigma-based isolation, studies have found that hunger decreases the ability to learn reading, writing, and mathematics, and that “food insecure adolescents reported poorer health, less exercise, had lower grades.” Ultimately, our current school-lunch programs produce anxious, angry, isolated kids who are too hungry to learn.

This is a community problem, not a poverty issue. Between housing, child care, food prices, and health care, the cost of living in our community is extremely high. For a family of four, the cost of living in Eagle County is roughly $88,462 per year. In 2023, in order to qualify for the “free lunch program,” the maximum income for a family of four will be $51,338.

This means that many families are barely making ends meet, yet will not currently qualify for free lunch. They make too much to qualify for benefit programs but not enough to live here. Many families in our affluent community would benefit from this, including those not considered to be “low-income.” If you have noticed a labor shortage in our community, consider how hard it is for the majority of people to be here. Voting “yes” on Proposition FF helps hard-working folks afford to stay here: It’s one less meal they need to worry about providing their children.

Proposition FF allows community members to fix the problem: The program would be financed by slightly reducing the state income-tax deduction for households earning over $300,000 per year. Local farmers and ranchers will become a bigger part of school-food supply chains, and school service staff will be paid fairly for preparing local, healthy food.

Our community can prevent kids from having more of the aggression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation that are already too common in the process of growing up. Voting “yes” on Proposition FF makes a strong statement that community health and well-being matter, and that we all can and all should be part of creating a proud future for Eagle County.

William “Billy” Schmick works as the co-chair of the Federal Policy Subcommittee at The Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger. Before moving to Vail in 2018, Billy interned in both the public and private law sectors and spent several years teaching English throughout South America. He holds undergraduate degrees in sustainability studies (Colorado Mountain College) and philosophy (Davidson College). He currently lives in East Vail where he enjoys snowboarding, golfing and hiking.

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