Public school students are getting a snow day in the nation’s capital while Washington, D.C. digs itself out from nearly two feet of snow on Monday. But for many kids growing up on the wrong end of D.C.’s extreme economic inequality, a day without classes can mean a day without breakfast, lunch, or both.
To mitigate the impact of the snow day on families who rely on school meals for a core portion of their children’s food, the district’s public school system is opening up the kitchens in 10 schools around the city and inviting students who can make it in safely to come and nosh.
The 10 schools, which are scattered around all four quadrants of the district, will serve breakfast and lunch from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., city officials announced on Sunday night.
D.C.’s public school population is far poorer than either the city at large or the nation as a whole. A full 76 percent of students in the system in 2013-14 were enrolled in either free or reduced-price school meals programs.
Data for the 2014-15 school year is not yet available, but the proportion of students who qualify for the meal programs rose by a tenth from 2011 to 2013. The rise is primarily due to the advent of a federal program called Community Eligibility, under which any school where more than 40 percent of students are eligible for traditional free or reduced-price lunch programs can receive federal funds to provide free meals to almost everyone who comes in the door.
But the high enrollment in the programs even before that policy shift in 2012 underscores that DCPS families stayed poor during a span when many in the broader capital region got richer. The median income in the Washington, D.C. area is over $100,000, but about three-quarters of the city’s public school students come from homes that survive on far less than half of that.
The demographics and inequalities of D.C. schools reflect broader changes in the district. The city is gentrifying rapidly and has been for over a decade now. Wealthier, whiter residents are more likely to take advantage of the district’s extensive school choice regime, and dozens of DCPS facilities have been converted into charter schools in recent years. Those left behind in the schools that the city runs itself are more likely to rely on school meals.
For families that rely on school meals to keep their kids well fed, snow days are a drag and summertime is perilous. School districts around the country work with charities to try to provide food to those families during the summertime in a systematic way.
But the irregular and sudden nature of snow days makes it harder to compensate for the weather than for the seasons. Empty bellies are almost guaranteed as a result.
In this case, Washington had plenty of advance notice of the severity of the blizzard that was coming. With almost all of the snow falling on Saturday, and plows beginning to untangle the city’s roads on Sunday, the capital’s school system was able to plan ahead far enough to at least offer meals at 10 of its 111 schools city-wide.
That’s more than just a nice gesture. Hungry kids are distracted kids. There is a wealth of research illustrating not just the short-term learning benefits of providing free meals to all students, but vast long-term savings to society from raising graduation rates and reducing health and behavioral problems.
Programs like Community Eligibility are beginning to leverage that research into on-the-ground programs, but the vast majority of teachers nationwide continue to report that they regularly see hungry kids in their classrooms. And tens of millions of American children live in households that are food-insecure, meaning they struggle to put adequate nutrition on the table year-round.