In the wake of President Donald Trump's failed effort to upend the Affordable Care Act, the president has said he's ready to "move on." Meanwhile, critics say the tussle over Trump's plan to upend Obamacare is nothing compared to the looming food fight over programs that feed tens of millions of American children and seniors.
"Honestly, I couldn't believe what we were hearing from the White House," said Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force founding Director Kathy Gardner. She was referring to Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney's comments March 16 that there was "no demonstrable evidence" linking school meal programs to student performance. Mulvaney went on to say the administration "can't defend anymore" using federal funds to help pay for Meals on Wheels programs.
"We can't spend money on programs just because they sound good," he said."We're not going to spend [money] on programs that cannot show that they actually deliver the promises that we've made to people."
Gardner begs to differ.
"I guess these are more of their alternative facts. There is research that proves success, even though some of our leaders say there isn't," she said.
According to a 2014 report, "Nutrition and Students Academic Performance," from Minnesota-based Wilder Research, nutrition is linked to "students' thinking skills, behavior and health, all factors that impact academic performance." In a 2015 study, researchers from Yale, Berkeley and the University of Connecticut concluded new, healthier school meals were receiving high marks from students who were eating more fruit and vegetables and throwing away less food.
"Better behavior, better test scores, better social interactions, you name it," said Gardner.
It is also a fact many Idaho children go hungry. A 2016 study from the nonprofit Feeding America revealed 83,110 Idaho children—one in every five Gem State kids—were considered "food insecure." The Idaho Foodbank says those children "live at risk of hunger."
That's why about half of all of Idaho's public school students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. In the Nampa School District, 68 percent of the students qualified for school meal assistance. In the Wilder School District the rate skyrockets to 94 percent.
"Nearly 60 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches or breakfasts. That number usually surprises people in Boise," said Peggy Bodnar, food and nutrition services supervisor for the Boise Independent School District. "And we have something called Community Eligibility Provision in 22 of our schools."
CEP is a federal provision that cuts through the paperwork and stigma of having to apply for a free or reduced-price meals. Because of the high number of families eligible for food stamps in a particular neighborhood, nearby schools make lunches and breakfasts eligible to all students in the neighborhood free of charge.
As Bodnar, a 12-year veteran of school nutrition, pored over the statistics, an end-of-period buzzer alerted the 1,100-plus students at Timberline High School that it was time for lunch.
"I promise you that you wouldn't be able to tell which of these students was eligible for a free lunch today," said Bodnar. "Hunger cuts across so many demographics, and there are probably more hungry children than we know, as families fall through the cracks due to the economy, foreclosures, job changes."
Bodnar said she had no desire to weigh in on the political drama around the fate of federally subsidized meals for students but was quick to add the Boise School District didn't think twice about supporting the 22 CEPs. It turns out that the federal government only partially pays for school lunches at a CEP school, leaving it to the district to cover the rest.
"It's amazing that the Boise district is so supportive, demonstrated by the fact that 22 of our 47 schools are CEP eligible. That's a district decision," Bodnar said. "And there is not one principal in our district who feels we should turn away a child that doesn't have enough money to eat. Not one."
Boise school cafeterias dish out nearly 23,000 meals each school day—approximately 4 million meals per year.
"This is not your grandfather's cafeteria food," said Bodnar, pointing to a series of cafeteria windows where students can get multiple menu items for lunch, all nutritionally balanced. "And our Farm to Table program is a huge hit," she said, which means tater tots are made from Idaho potatoes, trout is from Clear Springs Food in Buhl, hamburger buns are baked at Franz Bakery in Nampa, milk is from Boise's Meadow Gold Dairy and even sugar has been processed in Idaho.
"Boise schools spend over $1 million a year on local food products," said Bodnar, whose district-wide nutrition budget is $10 million. "These local food contracts are a very big deal for us. It's also a big deal that we have to operate on a balanced budget. The program is self funded. There are no educational funds to support food and nutrition service only from the sale of our meals from students who can pay and some federal reimbursement for those who can't pay."
At the Meridian headquarters of Metro Meals on Wheels, director Grant Jones balances an annual budget of nearly $2 million to provide a hot meal every weekday to more than 800 Ada County seniors.
"We're delivering or serving more than 100 meals more today than we were this time last year," said Jones. "Our numbers are going up. No. 1, seniors are living longer. No. 2, more and more retirees are moving to our area."
To keep the meals coming, the wheels moving and the doors open, Metro Meals on Wheels gets about 1/3 of its funding from seniors who can pay something for the meal to be delivered, another 1/3 from fundraising and a final 1/3 from the federally funded Older Americans Act Nutrition Program, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While the Trump White House hasn't mentioned any proposed cuts to OAA, Jones concedes "everything appears to be on the table in Washington."
"What we're telling our seniors is what we're telling our colleagues: This is all speculation. Nothing is for sure," said Jones. "We don't want to unnecessarily alarm our customers. Our seniors are already vulnerable in so many ways, and the last thing on Earth that we want is for them to worry, 'Oh my goodness. Will I get another meal?'"
As for the benefits of Meals on Wheels, Jones said the list was long.
"Nearly all of our clients can remain independent in their own homes. Compare that to assisted living and the savings are huge," he said.
According to Meals on Wheels, more than 75,000 Idahoans are considered "isolated, living alone," more than 37,000 of them "threatened by hunger," up from 29,000 only a year ago. Of those Idahoans who receive a hot meal delivered to their home each weekday, 90 percent said it "made them feel more safe and secure." As for savings, mealsonwheelsamerica.org estimates the program can provide meals to a senior for a full year for roughly the same cost as one day in a hospital.
Those are just some of the reasons, Jones said, that around 800 people showed up for the March for Meals event March 25 in Kleiner Memorial Park to bring much-needed attention to senior hunger. Food Services of America ended up donating $4,000 to the cause —$5 for each marcher.
Still another march to highlight food insecurity will get a fair amount of attention in the nation's capital. Bodnar knows because she'll be there.
"I'm the president-elect of the Idaho School Nutrition Association, so I'll be traveling to D.C. to take part in our national association's legislative action conference," she said. "We'll be marching to Capitol Hill on April 4."
Bodnar said nutritionists from all across the U.S. will fan out across the Capitol to get some face-time with members of the U.S. House and Senate.
"It's a very different time in Washington, D.C. It's time to stand up and talk about this," she said.