Op-Ed by Jack O'Connell & Tom Torlakson | San Francisco Chronicle
Friday, January 30, 2009 - Even in our nation's darkest hours, we have worked to make sure every child has enough to eat. That's why during the Great Depression visionaries instituted the school meal program that has helped to feed our neediest children, generation after generation.
But today, as more and more hungry children turn to the school lunch program for their only meal of the day, California's program is in danger of collapse. We must act quickly.
Struggling families count on the program during tough economic times, and these days, the need has exploded. California's school meal program provided 28 million more meals last year than in 2007 - a 4.5 percent surge.
We've seen an acceleration of the trend this year as our economy worsens. Just since the beginning of the school year, schools have experienced a 12 percent increase in meal demand, according to state Department of Education surveys. Typically, our school system experiences only a 1 percent difference per year.
It's distressing that budget cutbacks are being considered in the program, which quite literally costs only pennies per day for each child that receives a meal, of which the state provides fewer than 28 cents per meal. That includes the 6 cents we added so that fresh foods can be included in a meal that traditionally has contained deep-fried foods and too many starches and fat because these are the cheapest foods. The federal government pays the rest - between $2.17 and $2.57 for every free or reduced-price meal served.
Before the holidays, the state Department of Education announced that California's school meal program is projected to run out of funding before spring break. If this happens, the state will be unable to reimburse school districts on a per meal basis as required by law and districts will be forced to dip further into their barebones budgets to cover the difference. To ensure this doesn't happen, we will be working to dedicate $19.5 million in the state budget to simply continue the program. Study after study tells us that adequate nutrition is essential to learning. Children who eat a well-balanced diet have better test scores and perform better in school, and have lower absentee rates and fewer discipline problems.
When our needy students go without lunch, our entire country suffers. This became a national security issue during the Great Depression, when the military had to turn away scores of young men from service because of health issues relating to malnutrition. Today, our ability to compete is at stake.
As we grapple with how to close our enormous budget shortfall, the last thing we should do is turn our backs on everything we know about nutrition, hunger and our children.
Jack O'Connell is the state superintendent of public instruction. Tom Torlakson represents Contra Costa County in the state Senate.