THE BUZZ: Feeding a Need

By on April 25, 2017

Digging into food and funding insecurity in Teton County schools.

Free and reduced cost lunches, that include nutritious vegetables, fruits and whole grains, feed about 25 percent of students in Teton County. (Photo: Shannon Sollitt)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – An uncertain financial future for Teton County School District could impact some of its most vulnerable students. But in the face of proposed state and federal budget cuts, TCSD information coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said the district will do all it can to ensure programs that most benefit students—like free and reduced meals—survive.

President Donald Trump’s budget is subject to approval Saturday, his 100th day in office, and includes a 13 percent/$9 billion budget reduction to the Department of Education. Meanwhile, Governor Matt Mead is still deciding on a proposed $34.5 million budget cut to education in Wyoming.

Reynolds explained that most funding for TCSD comes from the state, and the majority—86 percent—goes to staff. And while increased enrollment (about 50 to 70 additional students each year) also means increased funding, the overall pot is expected to shrink, and more resources are needed to accommodate a growing population.

Teton County School District food service director Wes Clarke says there is little concern about eliminating the free and reduced lunch program altogether, but federal funding has its limits.

The school district’s funding comes through block grants—sums of money predetermined by the state and given to the district to provide necessary services and resources, like food.

Clarke receives applications for free and reduced lunch year-round. In fact, he sees an influx of applications this time of year, because the off-season often means lower wages. But if a block grant were to run out of money in, say, March, Clarke says his hands would be tied for the rest of the year. He doesn’t like the uncertainty of not knowing how long his funding will last.

How hunger looks different here

Since stepping into his position two years ago, Clarke has put access to nutritious food at the center of his work. He has committed to feeding every student in the district that needs it. But even government grants are not always enough in Teton County. The amount of students who qualify for, and use, free and reduced lunch programs has decreased from 32 percent to 25 percent in Clarke’s time at TCSD. But the amount of negative balances on student accounts has skyrocketed from $2,200 last year to a record-breaking $10,000 this year. Those trends, Clarke said, suggest that people in Teton County still live in poverty even if they don’t meet the national standard.

The free and reduced meal applications are based on national poverty income limits. Families with incomes under 135 percent of the national poverty level qualify for free meals. For a family of four, Clarke said, that’s $14 an hour, for an entire household working full-time.

“Trying to live on that in Jackson is really, really tough,” he said. “Because our rents and [cost of living] are so high, there are people who really struggle.”

About 15 percent of valley children were considered impoverished in 2012, according to the Teton County Community Needs Assessment, compared to 21.2 percent nationwide. That the valley’s rate is below the national average may point to how poverty looks different here. Wages have increased to try to keep up with high living costs, but families “still don’t have enough money,” Clarke said.

Teton County Public Health’s Community Needs Assessment identified food insecurity as a public health priority. It also identified severe housing as one of the community’s top 10 public health issues. Those two things are closely related, said Public Health director Jodi Pond. When more than half of a household income goes toward housing, other necessities, like food, take a backseat. It’s a ripple effect, Pond said. And if the most affordable living situation does not include a fully functional kitchen, access to nutritional food becomes scarcer.

Clarke also suspects that eligible families abstain from applying out of fear. The application asks for a social security number and an address, which he thinks could deter undocumented families from applying. But he says he is the only one who sees the applications, and the only thing he looks for is income level. Documentation status and residency do not impact eligibility. “There shouldn’t be any fear with those,” Clarke said. “I keep them on file, they don’t go anywhere else.”

Federal regulations and funding also mandate exactly what the students are eating. Clarke is proud that every student who goes through the lunch line is getting “all the things they need” in nutritional value. “We have very strict nutritional standards we have to stick to,” he said. In addition to an entree, each meal includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and a juice or milk.

Ellie Miles Begelman, who teaches third grade at Colter Elementary, says that fresh fruit grants, which are federally funded, provide healthy snacks for every student in the district. “Any time a kid says, ‘I’m hungry,’ we always have something in our cupboard,” she said.

Should cuts to federal funding impact crucial student programs down the road, Clarke and Begelman both acknowledged that Teton County, as wealthy as it is, is also generous. “We’re really fortunate here,” Begelman said. “We have such a good community, lots of local resources.” Vertical Harvest, for example, donates sprouts for Fun Food Fridays, a program Clarke implemented to encourage kids to try new things.

Clarke also started a program called Feeding the Hole, which lets private citizens add money to student lunch accounts. Clarke remembers a student who tried to pay for her lunch with change. “[Donors] just went in and quadrupled the amount, just to pay off her account,” Clarke said.

It’s hard for donors to choose whose balances to pay off, Clarke says, but the difference it makes is palpable. “You see the stress level drop when [students] go through and see their balance out of the negatives.”

Reynolds said it is too early in the budget process to make any definitive conclusions about the district’s future. But in any conversation about budget cuts, “our first and highest priority is funding classrooms,” she said. Budget cuts “can’t erode the foundations that our kids depend on.”

A new budget for the 2017/18 school year will be finalized in August. PJH

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