The Other 60 Percent

Clock ticking on school nutrition legislation

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, shared lunch with Thornton students in April.

Colorado child and health advocacy groups are frenziedly writing and calling Washington as the clock ticks down on the 111th Congress — but the legislation necessary to reauthorize funding of the nation’s school lunch program still has not been approved.

One major hurdle was cleared this month when the House Education and Labor Committee passed HR 5504, the “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children’s Act.”

The $8 billion, 10-year package of legislation would expand access to free and reduced-priced school meals, expand summer feeding and other out-of-school meal programs, and boost the quality of school meals while increasing funding for nutrition education. The legislation passed 32-13.

In March, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously passed a similar — though much less costly — bill, the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.” Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat who serves on that committee, said the legislation is a priority, particularly given his former job as superintendent of Denver Public Schools.

But now, both bills must still be passed by their respective chambers and then be reconciled before the legislation can be signed into law. And with the August recess looming and a dwindling number of days left for this Congress to act, advocates of the legislation fear it may not work its way to the top of the priority pile.

Read the bills

Click here for a summary of the House “Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act of 2010.”

Click here for a summary of the Senate “Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010.”

Make the call
Toll-free number for the Capitol Hill switchboard: 866-277-7617

Or, as one Senate staffer noted, it’s a top priority but there are a lot of other top priorities as well, and it’s hard for school lunches to edge out jobs and the economy for legislative time. Still, on Wednesday, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, brought up the legislation on the Senate floor and requested at least eight hours to discuss the bill.

“No one is opposed,” said Kathy Underhill, executive director of Hunger Free Colorado, the local advocacy group that has taken the lead in promoting the legislation.

“The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority,” Underhill said. “So right now, we’re just encouraging everybody to call. The policies enacted today will be written on the brains and bodies of the next generation.

“If Colorado is serious on the issue of education reform, you have to tackle the issue of hunger first,” she added. “You can have the best teachers in the best classrooms with the best training but if you have a classroom full of hungry kids, none of that matters.”

Hunger Free Colorado, along with the Colorado Health Foundation, LiveWell Colorado, the Colorado Children’s Campaign, the School Nutrition Association and other organizations have been urging members and supporters to write and call members of the Colorado delegation to keep up the pressure for action.

“Most of the organizations have been doing blasts out on their listservs to constituents around the state,” Underhill said. “Now that the House bill has passed, you can expect to see that spike up again.”

Kay Bengston, formerly the domestic policy officer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America until her retirement in 2005, has been phoning and calling as a private citizen these days.

First Lady Michelle Obama made her first comment on pending legislation when she urged lawmakers to pass the school meal bills.

“I do it because I have a commitment,” she said. “Hunger is one of the most critical human needs. And members of Congress want to hear from their constituency. Sometimes they just count the calls and record the number of yeses and nos. That tells them something, and every call means something.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, an outspoken proponent of healthier school lunches and crusader against childhood obesity, has added her voice in support, issuing a statement earlier this month urging the House and Senate to bring the bills to the floor and pass them without delay.

It marked the first time the First Lady has commented on pending legislation.

Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, serves on the House committee that passed the legislation, which included several provisions that he sponsored. Polis is optimistic about the chances for passage before the end of this legislative session.

“The chances of child nutrition reauthorization are very strong because there is widespread, bipartisan recognition that we cannot afford to further delay taking action on the interrelated problems of childhood hunger and obesity,” he said in an email to Education News Colorado.

He noted that the House legislation received the support of three of the committee’s 18 Republican members — which is what passes for bipartisan support in today’s political atmosphere.

“As in all legislative business, nothing is guaranteed and in the case of child nutrition, time is of the essence as the programs expire at the end of September,” Polis said. “With a shrinking legislative calendar during an election year, we need to act fast and I urge swift and decisive action as soon as we get back from the recess.”

Polis admitted that the cost of the House legislation is an issue. Unlike the $4.5 billion Senate version, which Senate committee members “paid for” by identifying available funding sources and offsets, the House has identified only $1 billion in offsets.

Quotable

“No one is opposed. The biggest enemy is apathy, and this really needs to be a priority.”
Kathy Underhill, Hunger Free Colorado

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, has vowed to identify the needed additional funding sources before the bill comes to a floor vote in the house. “I am confident that we will be able to find them,” Polis said.

Both the Senate and House bills authorize a number of changes to the nation’s school lunch program. Those changes fall into three categories: reducing childhood hunger, improving nutrition and addressing childhood obesity, and improving the efficiency and integrity of the programs.

In the first category, reducing childhood hunger, both bills seek to eliminate red tape and make sure children who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches are automatically enrolled in the program. Both would expand after-school snack programs as well.

In essence, they would turn “snacks” into full meals, meaning that some children would be provided with three nutritious meals a day at their school.

“If the after-school or supper program expanded to Colorado, that would be huge for our kids to be able to get that third meal,” Underhill said.

Both bills also would increase the reimbursement rate for school lunch for the first time in 30 years.

While both bills would expand access to free and reduced-price meals, they differ in the size of that expansion. The House version would allow school districts to automatically provide free meals to students who are enrolled in Medicaid programs. That would mean almost 1 million low-income children would begin automatically receiving free meals for the first time without having to fill out any additional paperwork.

The Senate bill would provide free meals to only about 115,000 new children.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, successfully amended the House nutrition bill and is urging its passage.

Likewise, the Senate bill requires the establishment of nutrition standards for all foods sold in schools during the regular school days. The House bill expands that requirement to include any foods sold in schools at any time, even after the end of the regular school day.

The House bill also includes a substantial investment – ½ cent per lunch served – in nutrition education and promotion activities in the school districts. That provision came at Polis’ insistence.

Polis also successfully amended the House bill to include a two-year Healthy School Meals pilot program, which would provide incentives for schools to offer vegetarian options and remove restrictions on non-dairy milk alternatives.

Finally, Polis succeeded in amending the House bill to include the establishment of professional standards for local food service directors, including minimum education, certification and training requirements.

It’s difficult to say just what the impact of the legislation would be on Colorado schools, Underhill said.

“No one has mapped that out because the versions are so different,” she said. “But every piece of it is critical. There’s no piece of the legislation that would not directly impact Colorado.”

Rebecca Jones can be reached at rjones@ednewscolorado.org.

in support

Denver school board pledges to ‘stand shoulder-to-shoulder’ with undocumented immigrants

PHOTO: John Leyba/The Denver Post
Arizona Valverde, a ninth grader at Denver's North High, holds a sign in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September 2017.

The Denver school board took a stand Thursday in support of young undocumented immigrants, urging Congress to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and pledging to provide opportunities for Denver educators to teach students about immigrant rights.

“You have accomplices and luchadores in us,” said board member Angela Cobián.

Cobián, who represents the heavily Latino region of southwest Denver and is the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was one of three board members who read the resolution out loud. Board member Lisa Flores read it in English, while Cobián and board member Carrie Olson, who until being elected last year worked as a bilingual Denver teacher, took turns reading it in Spanish.

“That was the most beautiful resolution I’ve ever heard read, and it’s so important,” board president Anne Rowe said when they’d finished.

The resolution passed unanimously. It says the seven-member school board implores Congress, including Colorado’s representatives, to “protect the DREAMers, providing them with the lasting solution they deserve and an end to the uncertainty they face.”

It also says the board “recognizes the importance of educators discussing and engaging with students on this issue,” including by delivering lessons explaining the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary protection from deportation and work permits to immigrants under 35 who were brought to the United States as children.

President Trump announced in September that he would end the Obama-era program on March 5. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to provide legal protections to the approximately 800,000 immigrants who are in danger of losing their DACA status. Two different deals failed to pass the Senate Thursday night.

About 17,000 such immigrants live in Colorado. Denver Public Schools doesn’t track how many of its 92,600 students are protected by DACA, but the resolution notes that many young undocumented immigrants, often referred to as DREAMers, “have attended DPS schools their entire lives or are DPS graduates who have built their lives in our community.”

The district was also the first in the country to hire, through the Teach for America program, teachers who are DACA recipients. Cobián recognized five of those teachers Thursday.

A recent national study found that DACA has encouraged undocumented students to finish high school and enroll in college. The study also noted a decrease in teen pregnancy and an increase in the number of 17- to 29-year-old non-citizens who are working.

The resolution notes that ending DACA “will be deeply harmful to our schools and community, depriving countless students, families, and educators of their peace of mind, creating widespread fear and uncertainty, and causing significant disruption to the learning environment.”

This is not the first time the Denver school board has made a formal show of support for immigrant students. A year ago, as Trump’s presidency sparked fears of an immigration crackdown, the board unanimously approved a resolution affirming the district would do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Below, read in full the resolution passed Thursday.

mental health matters

Colorado lawmakers say yes to anti-bullying policies but no to suicide prevention efforts

PHOTO: Denver Post file

It was the suicide late last year of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis that prompted state Sen. Rhonda Fields to call on state education officials to develop better anti-bullying policies.

Ashawnty, a fifth-grade student at Sunrise Elementary School in Aurora, took her own life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. As Fields met with grieving constituents, she felt like she didn’t know enough to act.

“The issue is very complex, and I felt like I couldn’t move forward on some of the suggestions because I hadn’t done the research,” said Fields, an Aurora Democrat. “If we really want to reduce incidents of bullying, it has to be tied to evidence-based practices and research so that schools know what works.”

Relatives of Ashawnty and of other children who had attempted suicide provided emotional testimony to the Senate Education Committee Wednesday morning. In a bipartisan, though not unanimous, vote, committee members advanced legislation that would require the Colorado Department of Education to research and write an anti-bullying policy that school districts could use as a model. A few hours later, the Senate’s “kill” committee, one to which members of Republican leadership send bills they don’t want to get a full vote, rejected a separate bill that would have provided grants of between $5,000 and $10,000 to school districts to help train teachers, students, and others in effective suicide prevention.

“You vote for anti-bullying policies, you vote for $7 million for interoperable radios, and you can’t support suicide prevention,” said an angry state Sen. Nancy Todd in the hallway after the vote. Todd, an Aurora Democrat, was a sponsor of the suicide prevention bill, and she and state Sen. Owen Hill both serve on the education committee. Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, also serves on State Affairs and voted yes on the anti-bullying bill and no on the suicide prevention bill.

Ashawnty Davis was the youngest of a series of children to die by suicide last year, and before the session started, lawmakers pledged to provide more support to schools and students.

Experts caution against drawing a direct line between bullying and suicide. Studies have found that children who are bullied – as well as children who engage in bullying – are at higher risk of harming themselves, but most children who are bullied don’t try to take their own lives. There are often multiple factors involved.

Nonetheless, the testimony heard by the Senate Education Committee focused on preventing bullying as a way to prevent suicide.

Kristy Arellano, whose daughter suffered a severe brain injury in a suicide attempt that occurred after being bullied, said neither she nor her daughter’s teachers had the tools they needed.

“We need to arm our schools and their faculty with the tools for how to stop bullying,” she said. “I think my daughter just didn’t know how to deal with the hateful things that were said to her, and I didn’t know how to help her either.”

Trembling as he described his family’s loss, Dedrick Harris, Ashawnty’s uncle, said passing this legislation and putting better anti-bullying policies in place would give some meaning to his niece’s death.

“My niece became a statistic,” he said. “I support this because it’s all I can do.”

Dew Walker, a family preservation specialist and grief counselor based in Denver, said current policies aren’t helping children, and they can feel like they have no way out.

“I’m here because there are children who don’t have a voice,” she said. “They reported their bullying, but they felt like nothing was being done. They didn’t report it to the right people, or they just weren’t that important. They go silent. They wear a mask. And they know about zero tolerance, and they worry that if they defend themselves, they’ll be in trouble, not the bully.”

The anti-bullying bill was co-sponsored by Fields and state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican who, back when he was still a representative in the state House, sponsored the 2011 legislation that created the Department of Education’s current bullying prevention program.

School districts are required to have anti-bullying policies that meet certain criteria, and the department makes resources and information about best practices available on its website.

The department also has provided $4.1 million in grants from marijuana tax money to 73 schools to develop anti-bullying programs.

Melissa Colsman, associate commissioner for student learning for the Colorado Department of Education, said that because so many other states have developed model policies, she believes the work can be done without needing additional resources and may be of value to school districts.

“We know that other states have seen this as valuable,” she said.

While Colsman said she isn’t qualified to talk about the link between bullying and suicide, “the concerns of children committing suicide are something that we all need to be thinking about.”

The suicide prevention bill would have made grants available for up to 25 interested school districts, public schools, or charter schools each year at a cost of roughly $300,000. Todd said that it was her intention that the bulk of the money come from gifts, donations, and grants, though the bill language also allowed for a general fund appropriation. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment already gets $539,000 in state money for suicide prevention efforts, as well as a $736,000 from a five-year federal grant to reduce youth suicide in eight Colorado counties, according to a fiscal analysis. Attorney General Cynthia Coffman recently launched a $200,000 initiative targeted at four counties with the highest suicide rates.

Todd’s bill would have made money available specifically to schools in all parts of the state.

Like other Western states, Colorado has a suicide rate that is higher than the national average, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24.

The bill would have allowed schools to design their own programs, and the grant money could have been used for training for parents and teachers, to help students recognize warning signs in their peers and know how to respond, and for the development of curriculum and educational materials.

In voting no, Hill cited concerns about how the grant program would be paid for, while state Sen. Vicki Marble, the Fort Collins Republican who chairs the State Affairs committee, said it sounded like a government solution to a family and community problem.

“Our children have a respect problem,” she said. “They aren’t what they used to be.”

Marble said she knows the guilt that survivors carry because 10 members of her extended family have taken their own lives.

“Government is not the answer,” she said. “What I see in this bill is the same bureaucracy of reports and advisory groups and grants and money, but no solutions.”


Resources

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. Chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Mental Health First Aid: mhfaco.org. Get trained to recognize the signs and how to respond.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. Join one of their upcoming walks for awareness in Colorado.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.