The Other 60 Percent

Online menu helps food-allergic kids

Add this to the list of challenges youngsters with severe food allergies have to put up with – getting to the school lunchroom and discovering that there’s nothing  on the menu they can safely eat.

Colorado Springs schools, like many school districts, is moving toward healthier meals, such as this teriyaki chicken with brown rice entree.

Jamie Humphrey, administrative dietician with Colorado Springs School District 11, knows that’s happened to kids. And while the district always offers a “gluten-free special of the day” for students with special dietary needs, that doesn’t always accommodate the range of students’ food allergies.

Some youngsters simply always must bring lunch from home. But some parents fear that children who never get to go through the lunch line feel left out, and they want schools to do better at ensuring allergic children always have at least some choices available.

A Denver company, Gipsee, which makes a variety of technology products for restaurants to accommodate patrons with food allergies, has teamed with the District 11 to provide a similar service to students.

System gets positive response

The AllerSchool system debuted in Colorado Springs this fall and, so far, it’s gotten good reviews from parents and food service officials.

It works like this: Parents of a child with severe food allergies register their child with the district’s Food & Nutrition Services. When they do, they’re given an identifying code that’s used to log into the district’s weekly menu website, allowing parents to see what will be served at each school each day and the exact ingredients in each menu item.

Michaela Sawyckyj, 7, dines on a special gluten-free meal provided for her by her school, Martinez Elementary in Colorado Springs.

Parents can screen for certain items – common allergens such as dairy or nuts or wheat or for more exotic allergens – and feel confident that whatever items pass the screen will be safe for their child. If there’s little or nothing on a given day’s menu that a food-allergic child can safely eat, parents can order a special meal for their child.

“It’s usually something made with gluten-free bread and may not be a super-desirable item for the kids,” acknowledged Humphrey.

“But it does allow our students to eat more regular meals. Before, it was difficult. They might look out our menu and say ‘There’s nothing I can eat.’ This way, there’s no question at all. Parents have all the information at their fingertips, and with each child having a customized profile it takes away all the guesswork. … They know it will be safe.”

For Sheila Sawyckyj, mother of a first-grader with Celiac disease, the AllerSchool system has been a huge gift.

“She knows when she’s being left out,” she said of daughter Michaela, a student at Martinez Elementary School in Colorado Springs. “We warned her she would need to take her own lunch, but she saw other kids eating at school and she wanted to be like the other kids.”

Her daughter’s illness makes it difficult for her to eat products containing gluten. Many popular entrees served at school, such as pizza and spaghetti, have some gluten. But the sides – fruits and vegetables – usually do not. “So for her, it’s pretty easy,” Sawyckyj said.

Once a month, Sawyckyj goes online to check the upcoming school menus, and order a special meal for Michaela on the days needed. Michaela doesn’t care much for the gluten-free sandwiches the school offers on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so on those days she usually brings her lunch. But Tuesdays and Thursdays, when the gluten-free option is taco salad or hamburgers on gluten-free bread, she goes through the lunch line.

“She’s like a different child on those days,” Sawyckyj said. “She’s happier on lunch line days. She gets more independence. She likes being able to go through the lunch line, and there’s nothing on the salad bar that can be cross-contaminated. Michaela feels secure, and she feels she has the chance to just be one of the kids. She doesn’t feel different.”

Product inspired by daughter’s experiences

Denver businessman Dilip Chopra understands Sawyckyj’s stress in trying to balance her daughter’s special needs with the emotional need to fit in. He’s the co-founder of Gipsee – and the father of a food-allergic daughter.

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“Our product was inspired by my own situation with my daughter,” he said. “She’s a senior in high school now, but throughout her growing-up years she’s had food allergies, and she could never eat in the school cafeteria. Whenever we would ask about the ingredients in the menu items, we could never get an answer. The ingredients were always changing.”

The one-time owner of a health food store, Chopra recruited a tech-savvy colleague to write the program that became AllerSchool.

District 11 is the only district to adopt AllerSchool to date, but Chopra hopes to expand it. The cost is modest: $10 to $20 per school per month. For that amount, Gipsee codes all the necessary data to show exactly which ingredients are in a given menu item.

Humphrey said an added benefit to the AllerSchool program is the extra transparency it’s given school lunchrooms as the district moves toward more scratch-based cooking.

“It’s helped us analyze our menus, break them down and see what the foods are that we should consider eliminating,” she said. “We can say we’re making all these great changes, but this allows parents to look and see for themselves. They can see, ‘This is homemade meatloaf, and it doesn’t have all these chemicals.’ I think this is really going to take off.”

Chilling effect

Five ways a proposed immigration rule could impact Colorado students and schools

PHOTO: JGI/Jamie Grill | Getty Images

Advocates for immigrant families fear that a proposed federal rule governing green card decisions could lead to more children going hungry and losing housing and health care. That, in turn, could pose challenges for educators and schools.

The proposed rule would allow the government to penalize some legal immigrants who have used public benefits by denying them permanent residency — a possibility that could prompt families to forgo any kind of government help. For children in those families, many of them citizens, the result could be hunger pangs, untreated illness, or outsized worry that their parents won’t be able to stay in the U.S. Inside schools, the new rule could mean more time and energy spent addressing students’ basic needs and the loss of funding from some public programs.

Fear that immigrants will shy away from benefit programs is nothing new. Stricter immigration rules since President Trump took office — stepped-up raids, efforts to discontinue the DACA program, and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border — have already led to a chilling effect on the legal use of public benefits by immigrants. Advocates say changes to the so-called “public charge” rule will only exacerbate the problem.

The rationale behind the proposed rule, a stricter version of one that’s been in place for years, is to prevent immigration by people who will end up dependent on government help. Opponents of the rule say it punishes working-class immigrants who may need short-term aid, but contribute much more to the country’s economy over the long term.

The existing public charge rule penalizes immigrants for using programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or long-term care. The proposed version adds several more to the list, including Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. Free and reduced-price school meals aren’t included in the existing or proposed rule.

Mónica Parra, program manager of the Denver school district’s migrant education program, said families she works with are reluctant to sign up for any kind of help, even assistance heating their homes during the winter.

“They’d rather struggle or find other ways to get support,” she said. “It’s going to be very challenging to keep students motivated, but also safe. Maybe they’re going to be cold. Maybe they’re going to get sick.”

The proposed public charge rule doesn’t apply to refugees and asylum-seekers, and doesn’t penalize immigrants for public benefits used by their children. Still, like other advocates, Parra said she hears anxiety about the proposed rule from all kinds of immigrants, including citizens and those who already hold green cards.

They worry that using public benefits could get their own legal status revoked or hurt their chances to sponsor family members who want to immigrate to the U.S.

“The fear has always been there in these communities,” she said. “Now, people are even more afraid.”

The new public charge rule likely won’t take effect for months. First, there will be a 60-day public comment period, scheduled to start Wednesday, and then Trump administration officials will consider the comments and decide whether to make any adjustments.

Here’s a look at some of the ways the proposed rule could affect Colorado schools and students.

More kids come to school hungry

There are at least two ways schools could see more hungry students walking through their doors due to the public charge rule. First, families may be afraid to take advantage of food stamps — either by deciding not to enroll, or by dis-enrolling current recipients, such as citizen children.

Both Denver and Adams counties have seen dips in the number of people participating in the program over the last couple years. In Denver, about 2,000 fewer children receive the benefit now than in November 2016 when President Trump was elected. However, city officials caution that it’s hard to make a direct connection between falling participation and federal immigration policies since historically low unemployment rates may also be contributing to the trend.

While free and discounted school lunches are not part of the public charge rule, some advocates report that immigrant parents have been wary of enrolling their kids since Trump’s election. By law, public schools must serve students regardless of their immigration status and can’t ask for information regarding a family’s or student’s status.

A week after the Department of Homeland Security released a draft of the new public charge rule on its website, the Eagle County school district emailed parents asking them to help squash the rumor that signing children up for free or reduced-lunches “will inform ICE,” a reference to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The letter concluded, “There is NO RISK in applying for free and reduced lunch, help us spread the word.”

So, what happens when kids go to school hungry? They may have trouble paying attention, misbehave more easily, or suffer from headaches or stomach aches. In short, less learning.

More children without health insurance, more student absences

The public charge rule’s chilling effect could have a major impact on child health, according to a recent Colorado Health Institute analysis. An estimated 48,000 Colorado children — the vast majority of them citizens — could be disenrolled from one of two public health insurance programs, Medicaid or Child Health Plan Plus. That would double the state’s rate of uninsured children from 3 percent to 6.7 percent, according to the institute.

The reason for so much dropoff is that health insurance is typically a family affair. So even when different rules govern adults and children in the same family, they tend to be enrolled as a group or not at all.

When students don’t have health insurance, school attendance and performance can suffer. For example, children may be absent more if they lack help managing chronic conditions like asthma, or if they’re not getting treatment for acute illnesses or painful dental problems.

Loss of health-related funding for schools and school-based clinics

School districts stand to lose two health-related funding streams if the number of uninsured children swells. The first would impact the state’s 62 school-based health clinics, which would likely see a drop in Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus reimbursements if fewer students enroll in those programs.

Such an enrollment decline, which some clinic leaders have already reported, could make it harder for school-based clinics to stay afloat financially, said Bridget Beatty, executive director of the Colorado Association for School-Based Health Care.

With more uninsured students, “The need will go up,” she said, “but conversely the ability to financially sustain them will get more challenging.” 

In addition, 53 Colorado school districts receive funding through a program that could be affected by the proposed public charge rule. It’s called the School Health Services Program and allows districts to seek Medicaid reimbursements for services provided to low-income students with disabilities. That money can be used for health-related efforts that benefit all students, such as the addition of school nurses, wellness coordinators, or suicide prevention programs.

Funding received through the program ranges from a couple thousand dollars in small districts to a few million in large districts.

High-poverty schools have a harder time offering universal free meals

Nearly 40,000 students in 20 Colorado school districts can eat school meals for free because their schools participate in a federal program designed to make breakfast and lunch easily accessible to low-income students. But that number could drop if the public charge rule decreases food stamp participation.

The special meal program, called Community Eligibility Provision, is open to schools or districts where at least 40 percent of students come from families that use certain public benefits, including food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Unlike in traditional school lunch programs, parents don’t have to fill out applications for free or reduced-price meals.

“Any time when you have eligible families not participating in SNAP, it does have a negative impact on community eligibility,” said Crystal FitzSimons, director of school programs at the national nonprofit Food Research and Action Center.

Even if schools or districts remain eligible for the program, a drop in students getting public benefits could mean a change in how schools are reimbursed for the free meals, she said. That, in turn, could make the program less financially viable for schools or districts to participate.

Immigrants could turn away from publicly funded early childhood programs

Crystal Munoz, who heads the nonprofit Roots Family Center in southwest Denver, worries that the Spanish-speaking families her program serves will stop using programs like Head Start, state child care subsidies, and the Denver Preschool Program, which provides tuition assistance to the city’s 4-year-olds.

Even though those programs aren’t part of the proposed rule, there’s still trepidation, she said. It’s because of the constant flurry of rule changes and the generally negative tone around immigration right now.

“We find ourselves very afraid to even give out resources or referrals to certain programs because we’re not sure,” she said. “For us, it’s waiting and seeing.”

She said if families do drop out of Head Start or other child care programs, it could push children — many of them citizens — into unlicensed care with relatives or neighbors, or force parents to cut back work hours to stay at home with them.

The Other 60 Percent

Too young to vote, Memphis teens lead voter-engagement campaign in advance of midterms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Caitlin Brinson (left), Christian Fuentes, and Aaliyah James lead a breakout session with fellow students on youth and education.

At 17, Caitlin Brinson isn’t yet old enough to vote, but she’s working hard to get other Memphis residents to the polls in November.

The Cordova High School school senior is active in a new youth initiative called Engage Memphis, which aims to increase voter turnout and to educate young future voters on issues that affect their lives, such as school discipline, sexual assault and harassment policies, and diversity in schools.

“It’s difficult not to have input on decisions that affect us directly,” Caitlin said. “It can feel powerless, like you can’t change things at your school or in local government, but I’m a pretty optimistic person. I really believe we can make an impact if we come together and help people around us see why who they vote for directly impacts us.”

Caitlin was one of more than 300 Memphis students from 40 schools who gathered earlier this month at a forum held by BRIDGES and Facing History and Ourselves. Those two local student leadership groups joined forces to create Engage Memphis.

One of the goals of the youth forum was to grow Engage Memphis into a citywide effort, said Marti Tippens Murphy, the Memphis executive director for Facing History. Ahead of the November midterm elections, students involved with BRIDGES and Facing History gathered for a series of lectures and breakout sessions. One of the goals was to help teens decide what they wanted their initiative to look like.

“Students came up with the strategy to focus on re-engaging people who can vote but haven’t yet,” Tippens Murphy said. “That often looks like a parent, grandparent or older sibling. They’re now having conversations with those people and connecting voting to issues that affect them.”

When it comes to voter participation, Tennessee has a long way to go. More than 838,000 adult Tennesseans are not registered to vote. The state ranks 40th in the nation in voter registration and last in voter turnout, according to The Tennessean. So the teenagers of Engage Memphis are trying to correct course.

“We’ll hear students say, ‘I’m only 16 and hadn’t thought issues around voting applied to me,” Tippens Murphy said. “We see this as leading students to prioritize voting when they become old enough. We know the youngest demographic is the lowest in voter turnout. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Caitlin said she’s seen a large amount of excitement around voting among her peers. That’s reflected nationally, too. A recent Harvard Institute of Politics poll of America’s 18- to 29-year-olds found a spike in the number of young Americans who said they will “definitely be voting’ in the upcoming midterm Congressional elections.”

Morgan Fentress, a 10th grader at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, said that while she originally attended last week’s forum because it meant a day off from school, the gathering inspired her to get involved in earnest.

“I hear people talk about voting in terms of getting out to the polls and making sure your voice is heard, but we’re not told or taught what we should be voting for, what the issues are we should care about,” Morgan said. “I wish modern politics were taught more in school. But coming here and hearing what issues other students are passionate about, it’s been really good.”