Hungry Kids Make Poor Learners

‘Babes of Wrath’ to Visit Cherry Hill, NJ to Advocate for School Lunch ‘Scoflaws’

Lucky kid at least gets a snack. Photo Diane Nilan

Tuna-Gate, the Cherry Hill, New Jersey effort to shame poor families into eking out lunch money or get served a tuna sandwich, has caught the attention of “Babes of Wrath,” a pair of national activists concerned about impoverished families. The Babes will spend 2 days in Cherry Hill, Sept. 5–6, creatively calling attention to the Cherry Hill school district’s problem collecting lunch money.

In what seems to be a national epidemic, districts are putting the squeeze on families to force payment for school lunches. Babes of Wrath, with decades of work with impoverished and homeless families, assert that school districts may be “lashing out at when they should be looking out for families, with housing and without, who cannot afford lunches,” maintains Diane Nilan, president of HEAR US Inc., a national advocacy organization.

Nilan, who filmed and produced a short documentary on families and youth experiencing homelessness across NJ, is one of the individuals responsible for creating and pushing for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act that, among other things, guarantees that homeless students receive free school meals. “It’s common that districts don’t recognize students experiencing homelessness,” Nilan pointed out. For the past 15 years she’s lived out of and traveled in her small van, filming homeless students in dozens of states to raise awareness and inspire compassion.

She points out that families often don’t self-identify, for shame or fear of child protective services getting involved. Or they just think they’re “going through hard times,” and try to cope, falling behind on payments they may not need to make. Since Cherry Hill doesn’t have a shelter, many families double up, stay in motels or sleep in vehicles.

Several officials in the Cherry Hill area responded supportively to inquiries about this issue. “We will be distributing information for families, with contact numbers for them to get clarification. We’ll also be distributing our Charlie Book: 60 Ways to Help Homeless Kids,” said Nilan.

Babes of Wrath, Pat LaMarche and Nilan, travel in Nilan’s van to various locations across the country to advocate on behalf of families, youth and individuals experiencing homelessness. Their specialty — a creative approach to call attention to this overlooked issue. No word on what they’ll be doing in Cherry Hill, but their agenda includes plenty of outreach to share information.

“With dire economic realities, families are doing the best they can to survive and make sure their kids get an education. School lunch shouldn’t be the stumbling block,” stated Pat LaMarche. Her years of running shelters in the Carlisle, PA area taught her that often kids go to school hungry, and being deprived of school meals only worsens their school performance.

Nilan points to simple math: Although Cherry Hill has a poverty rate of only 3%, they have about 1500 students receiving free lunch, representing very low-income households. The district has in the past identified about 50 homeless students over the course of the school year. In fact, according to modest estimates, 10% of the free-lunch recipients will be homeless. Under-identifying keeps students from getting the help they need to succeed in school.

“Who performs well when they’re hungry?” Nilan asks. Erecting barriers to food and shaming kids is senseless. Babes of Wrath join with countless others hoping the Cherry Hill School District decides on a policy that will be a positive example for the rest of the country.

Founder/pres. HEAR US Inc., gives voice & visibility to homeless families & youth, ran shelters, advocate, filmmaker, author, 15 yrs. on US backroads.

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