Lunch Line

Outspoken student, burned sandwich and frozen fruit spur meal changes in southwest Denver

PHOTO: Padres y Jóvenes Unidos
This lunch was served at Kepner Middle School on May 12. Descriptions were added by the Padres employee who received the lunch. (The chicken patties are pre-cooked by the vendor, but DPS officials said sometimes there are red spots in the meat that lead people to believe the meat is undercooked.)

The story didn’t start with the burned sandwich bun or the still-frozen strawberries on the lunch tray at Kepner Middle School in Southwest Denver. It started months earlier with a slow simmer of dissatisfaction over the quality of the school’s food.

But when that meal was served on May 12 during a lunch visit by school board member Rosemary Rodriguez, a district administrator, and representatives from Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, it perfectly captured the ongoing complaints: Food wasn’t prepared properly, some items ran out before the end of lunch, and there weren’t enough choices.

It was a Kepner student named Stephanie Torres, speaking about Padres’ health justice platform, who helped sound the alarm about such problems at a school board meeting in April. Her remarks spurred plans for the lunchtime visit by district officials. The visit, while coordinated in advance by central administrators, was not announced to Kepner’s kitchen manager or principal.

Monica Acosta, lead health justice organizer at Padres, went along on the visit and snapped a photo of her lunch tray.

“It was heartbreaking. That’s the type of food Kepner students have been having all year long,” she said.

In the last three weeks, Torres, Acosta, and others who participated in the lunch visit have reported positive changes in Kepner’s cafeteria.

Questions or comments about DPS meals?
Contact: Theresa Pena
Regional Coordinator for Outreach and Engagement
720-423-5657
THERESA_PENA@dpsk12.org

There’s no more frozen fruit or expired milk, and there are more hot entrée choices. Next year, there are plans to put Kepner on a different meal model that will increase daily hot entrée offerings from four to six, in line with most other middle schools.

“We’re very thankful those changes were implemented immediately,” said Acosta.

She said officials from the DPS nutrition services department have twice met with Padres representatives, including parents from Kepner and other district schools where complaints have surfaced.

“It’s definitely on the right track,” she said.

Navigating a bureaucracy

By most accounts, the changes at Kepner represent a win, but they also raise questions about what caused the problems in the first place, how pervasive meal complaints are in the district, and what mechanisms exist for students and parents to air their concerns about school food.

Theresa Peña, a former Denver school board member and now a district employee, said the nutrition services department is willing to have conversations with students, parents and school personnel about food. In fact, that’s a large part of her new job as the department’s regional coordinator for outreach and engagement.

If there are concerns, she said, “we are absolutely willing to do something different.”

"The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety."

Still, she agreed that in a bureaucracy like DPS, which serves nearly 80,000 meals at 185 schools a day, it’s not always clear to students or parents whom to approach when there’s a problem. Closing that “communication gap” represents a big opportunity for the department, she said.

There’s been talk about putting kitchen manager’s photos and contact information up in school cafeterias and bringing parents on behind-the-scenes kitchen tours. Currently, the district seeks feedback about school food through student surveys conducted at three mobile food service kiosks. Peña also plans to work with the district’s student board of education to solicit feedback.

“The biggest complaint I hear from students is the lack of variety,” said Peña.

A varied landscape

The problems at Kepner represent a distinct contrast with what multiple observers say is an upward trajectory for meal program quality districtwide.

About five years ago, DPS began moving away from a menu of processed foods to majority scratch cooking. (Both Kepner’s kitchen manager and another employee there have participated in scratch cooking training.)

The district is also well-known for its robust school farm program, which provides thousands of pounds of fresh produce to school kitchens every year. In addition, all district schools have salad bars.

“DPS is really doing some great things,” said Rainey Wikstrom, a healthy school consultant and DPS parent. “I would say one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole barrel.”

Still, it’s not clear why the burned bun–ironically one of the district’s scratch-made baked goods—or the frosty strawberries were served on May 12.

“In any large district there’s always going to be a difference between the best intentions of the central office and what actually happens in schools,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for LiveWell Colorado.

While Peña agreed the bun should have been thrown out, she said the Kepner kitchen, like others across the district, has struggled with short staffing throughout the year. She recalled that the workers were barely keeping up when she went through the lunch line herself that day.

Wikstrom said when she recently read a job posting for a school kitchen manager, it hit her hard how much is expected for a relatively low wage.

“We don’t pay our food service staff well…We need to offer them more support and more financial support,” she said.

As for the reason that Kepner students had few entree choices for most of this year, that’s because the school’s kitchen provides meals to a nearby district preschool as well and therefore followed a K-8 menu model. That model includes fewer daily choices than a middle or high school model.

A broader problem?

Kepner is not the only DPS school where complaints have surfaced about school food.

In fact, while lunch was the culprit this time around, breakfast has been a target of complaints in Denver and elsewhere over the last couple of years. That’s because more schools have added breakfast in the classroom since the passage of the “Breakfast After the Bell” law in 2013.

That trend, which often means delivering coolers of food to individual classrooms, has contributed to the use of easy-to-distribute, prepackaged items. Thus, there can be a big disconnect between what is served at breakfast and what is served at lunch.

“Breakfast items are not up to par…with where the lunch programs are” said Wikstrom. “[They] meet the requirements but don’t match the message or the philosophy.”

Padres parent Leticia Zuniga, who has a preschool daughter and first grade son, said through a translator that she is unhappy with how many menu items are flour-based.

Her daughter is clinically overweight and Zuniga worries that school food is not teaching her healthy habits. Her son, meanwhile, is not overweight, but comes home from STRIVE Prep-Ruby Hill two or three times a week saying he didn’t eat lunch.

“He doesn’t like the food,” she said.

In February, two students at McAuliffe International Academy wrote an article for their student newspaper in which they skewered certain hot breakfast items.

The girls wrote: “…it is a disappointment when your teacher opens the hot food container and all you see is half burnt pizza in a bag or half melted omelet in a bag. Even teachers think it’s gross.”

Peña acknowledged such complaints and said the district’s breakfast pizza has drawn particular ire.

She’s heard from multiple parents: “We think the idea of breakfast pizza is just wrong.”

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.”