School meals: a reflection of growing poverty in LA 

In Summary

LAUSD has the largest distribution of free or reduced-price meals in California — and it’s increasing. About 80% of students are served the breakfasts or lunches. Last year, the district provided 120 million meals, or 720,000 per day.

It’s 7:30 in the morning of any given school day. Jonathan Rodríguez and Yvette Fuentes, both 12, arrive at the Luther Burbank Middle School cafeteria to pick up breakfasts in closed containers and take them in carts to the classrooms of teachers Emily Feinberg and Gisele Hoffer. 

The food is placed on a counter in the classroom and in order, the children rise from their chairs and choose their breakfast. They quietly drink milk and eat fruit, an egg burrito, or whatever has been served. Five minutes later, they are ready for class to begin. Now their stomachs feel better.

“I have been working as a teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District for 15 years and I have seen hundreds of children who come to school without having breakfast at home,” said Hoffer, a sixth-grade teacher. “It is very difficult for them to learn and pay attention. Some have breakfast here in the classroom and sometimes they ask for more food.” 

Christine Moore, the school’s principal, reported that 93% of its students – 819 children – are enrolled in the free or reduced-price meal program.

The campus, located in the Highland Park area, is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 80% of students are served the breakfasts or lunches. That amounts to 555,276 students. Last year, the district provided 120 million dishes, or 720,000 per school day.

The numbers of Los Angeles children who need the meals have been rising sharply in recent years. In 2015-2016, 72.4% or 405,338 LAUSD students qualified for the free or reduced price meals, according to a 2017 Food Research Action Center report. 

“We have the highest participation of students who are served breakfast in the classroom,” said Monica Garcia, a member of the LAUSD School Board. “Also, most of our schools (75%) are in the Community Eligibility Program, where all students get all meals without charge.” 

Other California counties also are experiencing high rates of students who depend on the meals: 74% of students in Fresno County and 71% in San Bernardino County. In each of these districts, Latinos make up the majority of the student population.

Johnson Carles, cafeteria manager at LAUSD’s Luther Burbank Middle School, said the school serves 500 breakfasts, 800 lunches and 300 after-school meals each day to its 881 students in sixth through eighth grade. 

“I grew up and knew poverty,” Carles said. “The economy improves in the country and in California, but here there are still many low-income children. That is why providing them with nutritious and healthy food is a personal thing for me and of course is a District goal in general.” 

Yvette Fuentes and Jonathan Rodriquez, both 12, pick up breakfasts at the Luther Burbank Middle School cafeteria and take them to the classroom. About 90% of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Photo by Jorge Macías.

Educators worry that the students’ low incomes and food insecurity are affecting their performance. According to Public School Review, an education website that evaluates the academic conditions of schools nationwide, only 36% of Luther Burbank High School students were proficient in mathematics in the 2016-2017 school year. That is lower than the state’s average, 38%. In reading assignments, the gap was wider: 42% of the students reached a competent level compared with the state’s 48%. 

In the Los Angeles school district, which is the largest in California and the second largest in the nation, 73.4% of students are Latino, 10.5% white, 8.2% African American and 4.2% Asian. More than 19,500 students experienced homelessness in the 2018-2019 school year, and more than 8,500 lived in foster homes. 

About $160 million is spent annually to feed students in the district, reaching a majority of students in almost every school. Younger students depend the most on school food: 70% of elementary students participate in food programs, 45% to 55% of middle schools and 38% to 45% in high schools. 

Garcia said LAUSD administrators are committed to helping low-income students and that is why they have implemented the Breakfast in the Classroom Program, where free food is delivered to classrooms. 

“Food is the more basic thing that young people need to overcome the challenges and move forward in life,” she said. 

In an extra effort to prevent children and young people from returning home hungry, LAUSD also implemented a dinner program, which is provided just after the exit bell rings.”We currently serve 71,000 late meals a day and we expect the number to increase,” said LAUSD spokeswoman Ellen Morgan.

Dr. Pedro Noguera, a professor of social sciences at UCLA’s Department of Chicano Studies, said that for the most part, school districts fail to distribute the resources to the students most in need. 

“Two things happen in many Los Angeles schools: children are poor and also have other important needs to worry about, such as housing and access to health,” he said. “The schools do not have the resources to address all the problems and the children struggle because the districts do not allocate the resources in the schools that need them most.” 

At the state level, the California Department of Education (CDE) spent $2.7 billion in federal and state funds to support schools, child care centers, family day care homes, adult care centers, park centers and other agencies eligible to provide meals and lunches. 

Noguera said that it takes a lot to prepare new generations to face the labor challenges of the 21st century. In California, there is a will to change, but there is no political will for the tax system to change the way funds are sent to schools, he said. “I hope this governor (Gavin Newsom) makes the right decisions.”

Students who depend on school meals by county:

 Los Angeles County: (64% Latino) 1,034,525 out of 1,492,735 or 69%  

 San Bernardino County: (64% Latino) 288,979 out of 403,196 or 71%. 

 Fresno County: (64.9% Latino) 151,656 out of 204,421 or 74%. 

 San Francisco County: (31% Latino) 31,718 out of 60,916 or 52.1%. 

 San Diego County: (48% Latino) 261,450 out of 508,227 or 51.4%. 

 Jorge Macías is a contributor at La Opinión. This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

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