Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good. full bio
It’s tough for kids to pay attention in math or English class when their stomachs are growling.
So last week when Della Curry, the former kitchen manager at an elementary school in suburban Denver, was confronted with a first-grade student who was crying because she didn’t have money for lunch, Curry did what anyone with a compassionate heart would do: She gave the child a meal for free. Now the humanitarian action has cost Curry her job.
Last Friday Curry was fired from her position at Dakota Valley Elementary School. She says she was terminated for violating a district policy that prohibits providing meals to children whose families don’t qualify for free lunch.
“I had a first grader in front of me, crying, because she doesn’t have enough money for lunch. Yes, I gave her lunch,” Curry told CBS 4 in Denver.
Because of privacy laws regarding personnel, officials in the Cherry Creek School District told the station they couldn’t speak about the specific reasons for Curry’s termination. However, the district released a statement clarifying that just because kids are hungry doesn’t mean a school has to feed them.
“The law does not require the school district to provide the meal to children who have forgotten their lunch money, that is a district decision. According to our practice, we provide hot meals to students the first three times they forget their lunch money and charge their parents' accounts. The fourth time, we provide a cheese sandwich and milk,” the district said in its statement.
Curry had previously provided the cheese sandwich and milk to hungry kids; the healthy fruits or vegetables served to other children aren't included in that meal. Children often were still hungry after eating the cheese sandwich, so Curry frequently just bought a full lunch for the kids with her own money.
“I’ll own that I broke the law. The law needs to change,” Curry told the station.
So, Why Should You Care? A sobering report released in January from the Southern Education Foundation revealed that for the first time in 50 years, a majority of students enrolled in America’s public schools are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2013 a full 21 percent of school-age kids in the United States were living below the poverty line of $23,550 for a family of four. That’s a 6 percent increase since 2000.
The federal school lunch program subsidizes reduced-price meals for families living at 185 percent of the federal poverty line, and free lunches for those at 130 percent of the federal poverty line. But if a family makes just a few dollars more than the official cutoff, it doesn't qualify for the assistance.
A family of four in the Cherry Creek School District needs to earn less than $31,000 to qualify for free lunch. Colorado’s minimum wage is $8.23 per hour, which is higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. However, that only translates to an annual salary of $17,118 per year before taxes.
Two parents working full-time and earning that wage may struggle to afford the rent on a fair-market-rate two-bedroom apartment, which means that they’ll have less money to fork over for other basics, such as food.
The problem of families not being impoverished enough to qualify for assistance - but not well-off enough to be able to cover meal costs on their own - has spurred several districts across the nation to participate in a new federal program that enables all students to eat lunch for free.
On Monday, the Baltimore City Public Schools became the latest district to announce that it would participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Special Assistance Certification and Reimbursement Alternative program. Schools or districts qualify when a high percentage of kids in attendance come from low-income homes. Once they're part of the program, they simply let the federal government know how many student meals they need to be reimbursed for.
The shift to this program means that parents no longer have to submit applications for free or reduced-price lunch, which helps get around several challenges to ensuring students aren't hungry: Homeless families might not have a permanent address to write on the application, undocumented parents might be afraid that their status will be exposed, and sometimes, folks are just too proud to ask for help or worry they'll be treated with less respect by teachers. In all of those instances, the hungry kids who can’t focus on academics in the classroom end up suffering.
As for Curry, she hopes that her story will help change the way education officials treat children who can’t afford meals. “If me getting fired for it is one way that we can try to change this, I’ll take it in a heartbeat,” she said.