Editorials

Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Walla Walla Union Bulletin and The Olympian. Editorial content from other publications is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

School lunches are important. In too many cases they are the best, perhaps only, meal a kid has that day.

In most school districts in America, whether school lunches are provided at no cost or at a reduced cost depends on the family income of each student. It’s common for half the children to received subsidized lunches.

But the current approach requires a lot of paperwork — red tape — and it can cause embarrassment for kids. It creates a de facto have-and-have-not system.

And that has many, including us, wondering whether it might be best to simply offer free lunches to all.

This year the College Place School District opted to offer free school lunches to all students through high school. This was done by using a provision in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National School Lunch Program that allows free meals for all students if the majority of students in a school come from low-income families.

College Place Public Schools Superintendent Tim Payne said the district enrolls about 1,300 students, with roughly 60 percent from families at or below the federal poverty level.

Until this move was made, school officials had no choice but to deny lunch to students who did not qualify for the subsidized lunch, even in cases where kids’ payment for lunches was delinquent or simply forgot to bring their lunches.

Not feeding children was not going over well with anyone, Payne said, adding that he’s seen elementary kids cry at realizing they would not be allowed to eat.

“It’s a horrible scenario,” he said.

Payne isn’t alone in feeling that way.

A Seattle man, Jeff Lew, embarked on a quest this year to pay off the school lunch debt accumulated by students across the state.

Earlier, Lew, with the help of singer John Legend, raised more than $100,000 to pay off the meal debts in five Seattle-area school districts. Now he’s working to raise $600,000 to erase the debt at every school district in the state.

“It’s important to pay off these debts because we need to help each other and help one another in a time of need,” Lew said. “Regardless of the reason for what these parents are going through, I want to give back. These are families I don’t know, these are kids I don’t know, but I want to fight for them.”

College Place school officials and Lew are onto something.

Why put kids in this difficult position in the first place?

It’s reasonable to let all the kids have access to lunch with no strings or stigma attached.

Perhaps a way to get around the income requirement is to create a public-private partnership — as Lew is doing — so that those who are not covered by government subsidy would be covered by private donations.

In the long run, we believe it would be best to provide free lunches to all those who want them so no child will go hungry or be embarrassed.

Tumwater opens a door for homeless students

The number of homeless kids attending public schools grows every year in Washington, topping 39,000 in the latest count. These homeless students present unique challenges for educators — some aren’t well fed or rested and they may not have a good place to study or do homework.

Data kept by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction showed at least 1,940 of those kids were in Thurston County schools during the 2015-16 school year.

That’s a lot for community schools to handle, and the years-in-the-making problem has spurred many attempts at meeting homeless kids’ needs.

Advocates inside and outside our local schools are making some headway, and a recent Tumwater School District project is an example of going to great lengths to turn the tide.

Tumwater schools developed a Community Schools Initiative through a partnership with local nonprofit TOGETHER!. This initiative brings services for resource-challenged kids into the school house — offering everything from mental health care to basic needs such as immunizations.

Begun in 2014, the program has grown to include seven schools in the Tumwater district. Each school has a resource center — or pantry — where kids and their families can find food, new clothing, school supplies, hygiene products, and other donated materials.

These are laudable steps, but Tumwater took a significant step this year to assist homeless students further. In a unique local partnership with the Housing Authority of Thurston County, schools and housing specialists secured five dwellings in the new Allen Orchard development across the street from Peter G. Schmidt Elementary School.

As the school year opens this month, five Peter G. Schmidt families with children who have been homeless will have a place to call home. In this first-time project, the authority screened families that had been identified by a school counselor and is subsidizing rent for the duplex-style units.

Unfortunately this project touches just a tip of the need. Peter G. Schmidt has 27 homeless students, a fraction of the 185 in Tumwater schools overall. North Thurston Public Schools had 798, the most in the county last year, and Olympia had 227.

But it is a start. It represents the kind of thinking that is needed as our Thurston County community works to get hundreds of homeless or near-homeless families and children into shelter.

Time will tell, but this project seems certain to make a difference in the lives of those who participate. As Olympian reporter Zoe Sayler noted in her recent story about the project, homeless students are two times more likely to repeat a grade than their housed counterpart, and they have three times the rate of behavioral or emotional troubles.

As this project is tested over time, we hope it provides lessons for other districts that are reaching out to help the kids who too easily are forgotten.

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