I am completely fine with walkouts, sit-ins, strikes, marches, or any other sign of activism that is steeped in fighting for what you believe in. For example, teachers in West Virginia led a nine-day strike that closed public schools for all teachers and students because the teachers wanted a 5% raise. Now again, I’m all for activism to advocate for yourself and what you believe in. I’m not, however, in favor of personal gain while others suffer.
In West Virginia, of the 273,170 students who attended a traditional public school in 2016-2017, 191,533 received free or reduced-price meals (FARMS) including lunch and breakfast. Of that number, 80% were considered on the “low socioeconomic scale.” This means the majority of their students depended on the school nutrition program for at least two of their meals each day during the school year. However, when schools are closed because of a strike how do these children eat?
My guess is in most places they don’t. Or they do so very sparingly. I was happy to hear that some teachers in West Virginia did, in fact, ensure that a food distribution system was set up. That was great. However, my experiences as the Public Information Officer of a fairly large urban school system, taught me what something like a snowstorm that shut our schools down for 10 straight days can do to the poor and hungry.
On day one I asked the Superintendent about feeding the children and families who depended on us for food. “Let’s see how things progress,” a Deputy Superintendent told me. On the second day, schools were still closed and no meals were served. On the third day, I laced up my boots, dug out my car, and went looking for a solution. I called the head of our transportation department with the crazy idea of clearing parking lots in schools where our largest numbers of students on the school nutrition program lived and using our school buses as makeshift food delivery systems.
“Let’s feed the children,” I said. And we did.
Hungry children during a school closing is not a new phenomenon. In fact, National Public Radio reported on it in 2014 in a piece called “For Low-Income Students, Snow Days Can Be Hungry Days.” As the piece explains, typically when families hear about impending weather storms, they stock up on food to ensure they will have enough, but what happens when stocking up isn’t an option for you because of your limited available funds? What if it is near the end of the month and your SNAP benefits are depleted? Who feeds you then?
This same NPR report gave an example of one school that said they often see a higher participation in breakfast the day class resumes after a weather-related closure. Sixty-eight percent of this school’s student population is on free or reduced-price lunch.
According to the USDA, in 2017 74% of all students on a school lunch program received free or reduced-price meals; while 85% of the same category of students received free or reduced-price breakfast at school.
I’m concerned about the other states that are looking at what happened in West Virginia as a catalyst for doing something similar in their state. For example, educators in Oklahoma, where of the 693,710 public school students, 442,818 are on FARMS, are considering a strike for higher wages. My hope is Oklahoma Education Association, the group organizing the possible upcoming strike, will consider the students and their families who need daily meals through the school nutrition program, instead of only considering the adults in this situation.
Activism is great, until the children suffer.