Tuesday, August 29, 2017


No Soup For You!

This week I had one of those moments in a meeting when I could feel my brain stop.

Several of us from the college were meeting with a few folks from a local high school with whom we have an Early College High School arrangement.  The program allows high school students to take college classes for dual credit; if they pass everything on the first try, they can graduate with an Associate’s degree at the same time they graduate high school.  It’s a way to short-circuit the “you’re not college material” message that some kids get in our culture, and to do it at minimal cost.  We already have some four-year colleges expressing strong interest in enrolling the graduates as transfer students.

The meeting was moving along nicely as we discussed curriculum, space, and timing.  The model we’re using involves starting out with classes in the high school, but once students get some credits under their belt, they move to the college campus.  It’s a phasing-in process that allows students to build some momentum in familiar environs before jumping in the deep end.  So far, the results have been encouraging.

Until we hit the unanticipated topic that stopped me cold: lunch.

Many of the students in the program qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  When they’re on the high school campus, the school has mechanisms for that.  It has built its cafeteria policies and practices around that.  The school knows what to do, and has legal permission to do it.

But apparently, the free and reduced price lunch money isn’t portable.  If the students are taking classes on the college campus, they can’t apply that money at the cafeteria here.  They can take classes here, but they can’t get food here.  

No soup for them.

Drawing on the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab, I’ve suggested before that it would be beneficial to extend some version of the free lunch program to community colleges.  But I didn’t realize that even current beneficiaries of the program can’t apply the benefit here.  

It could be simple enough.  Most colleges, including my own, have student ID cards on which students can load money to be spent on campus.  If the free lunch allocation were converted to that, the students could use their ID’s at the cafeteria, just like everyone else.  They could get hot or cold food, and nobody but them would know from whence the money came.  I’m pretty certain that we could find technology to ensure that the daily money expires at the end of the day, if that’s a deal-breaker.

We know that hungry students don’t perform as well academically as fed students.  We know that dual enrollment and early college programs provide real academic benefit, particularly for low-income students.  And we pay for lunches for low-income students in high schools.

So why can’t we apply those same dollars to cover lunches for low-income students here?  

The argument from basic human decency is obvious.  Basic human decency aside, the bang for the buck for something like this could be enormous.  In practice, any workarounds will be far more expensive and cumbersome, and far less satisfying, than the simple fix of letting students eat in the cafeteria with everyone else.  

WIse and worldly readers on campuses with longstanding dual enrollment programs: do you know how your school handles lunch?  There has to be a reasonable way...

Do these kids still go to school before going to community college? If so, can they pick up a packed lunch before going to the ComCol.
As someone who has worked just a little bit with free lunches on the K-12 side, I'll just warn you to prepare for an onslaught of bureaucracy. Many schools essentially have a staffer devoted just to meeting the requirements for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) for reimbursement. The reason all schools use the same vendors is because of all the requirements around the particular type and combination of food served. In addition, you have to verify that the student took all components of the lunch. Our auditor explained to us that it didn't matter if they threw it out immediately after passing through the line, but they had to take it and get it rung up before the rest of the meal could be counted free. (Many schools essentially have a trashcan just after the lunch line that gets filled with unwanted lunch items, often near a poster that discourages food waste. This is either a vain attempt to fight against the inevitable, or some cruel attempt at irony.) You'll also need to rigorously track who did and didn't get lunch, and the district will need to cross-reference that to their own list. I assume you will already meet requirements around food storage, serving temperature, etc.

It's definitely not as simple as "here's some money, go buy lunch!"

Now this may be different at your schools. This is not my area of expertise, but my understanding is that many schools with lower free and reduced meals (FARMS) students decide to forgo reimbursement entirely in exchange for fewer regulations and less oversight around this stuff. Talk to someone with more expertise, but be prepared for a lot of hurdles around lunch content and serving methods.
I work today a high school where almost all kids have free lunch and we utilize an early college model. Our kids that go off campus don't leave until after lunch. We have two blocks in the morning and the kids usually have Calculus and a "college readiness" class where the work on 4-year applications in the fall and scholarship applications in the spring with a dose of "personal finance" to fill in time gaps. A lot of our dual enrollment kids also end up in online classes or evening classes and don't have to leave campus at all.
Seconding what Rob said, the Free and Reduced Lunch program has a lot of regulations around what, specifically, counts as a "lunch". K-12 students are not given money or credits to spend as they please, but are issued (possibly with a this entree or that one choice) an entire "meal" that has to consist of some very specific components, including multiple sub-types of vegetables and specific min/max calorie amounts within a fairly narrow band (these are called "meal patterns" by the USDA - the USDA website has a lot of information about this).

The best way to handle this would probably be to work with the K-12 district and have them produce sack lunches in their existing cafeteria to give out to the dual-enrollment students at your site at some kind of pickup location, since they already have someone who knows how to make compliant sack lunches in their district. (As a K-12 teacher, I've certainly seen them do so for field trips, anyway.) Yes, this does not give kids the "college experience" of figuring out their own meals, but there really isn't any way to do that with school lunch funding under the current program.
At our college, the county school system sends two "lunch ladies" to bring a hot meal to our campus (served in the cafeteria) and the dual-enrolled students know to come during the hours they are there.
Interestingly, the program at Bowie State U. uses the Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) criteria to qualify students for fee reductions, but doesn't mention anything about actual meals. https://www.bowiestate.edu/files/resources/bsu-pgcps-dual-enrollment-handbook-spring-2017-fin.pdf

At Georgia State U., we have an extensive dual enrollment program, but I can't find anything about meals. I now plan to reach upward to suggest that they address the issue.
California State University Chico has a grant for 11 (of the 23) CSU campuses to do outreach and enroll students in CalFRESH, the CA version of SNAP. There is another grant very similar but my campus did not submit; I just found out about this and am bringing graduate social work students into the process as a class requirement for them. It seems so obvious that campuses *should* facilitate access - and on my campus - CSU Dominguez Hills, in Los Angeles County - the 1996-added work requirement for single, able-bodied adults who receive SNAP is waived if the student is enrolled in any number of programs targeted their academic success.
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