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Jason Walsh: Let the fish and chips fall where they may


Taco Tuesdays may never be the same.

At least that could be the case if SB 138 has its way. That’s the piece of legislation known as the Feed the Kids Act, a law wending its way through Sacramento authored by Sonoma County’s 2nd District state Senator Mike McGuire intended to streamline how schools shift that mac ‘n’ cheese from the lunch lady’s ladle to Sonoma kids’ tummies.

If it passes, the law would automatically enroll about 650,000 low-income California students into a free school lunch program; to pay for it, schools with high poverty rates would apply for federal reimbursements for the meals.

While many low-income families are already eligible to receive free, or reduced-price school lunches, the fact that they must apply in many districts is a barrier that’s kept numbers frustratingly down.

But SB 138’s process is as straightforward as a square slice of pizza. It would entirely forgo the application red tape, and instead automatically register families that already qualify for Medi-Cal assistance into school lunch programs.

The bill has passed the state Senate and Assembly. And Gov. Brown should sign it with the expedience of a sloppy joe shooting its way through my kid’s digestive tract.

As if it weren’t already obvious to those adults who’ve observed grouchy, lackadaisical coworkers who’d skipped their noontime nosh – present Index-Tribune company excepted, of course! – several studies over the last decade have linked academic and behavioral improvements with students who regularly eat proper meals. One study conducted by Harvard University researchers in 2008 found that access to nutrition can enhance a student’s psychosocial well-being, reduce aggression and school suspensions, and decrease discipline problems.

In that study, Dr. J. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health, argued that there exists no “safe level of inadequate nutrition” for growing children.

Even nutritional deficiencies of a relatively short duration – a missed breakfast, an inadequate lunch – impair children’s ability to function and learn, Brown and his researchers concluded.

“When children attend school inadequately nourished, their bodies conserve the limited food energy that is available,” wrote Brown. “Energy is first reserved for critical organ functions. If sufficient energy remains, it then is allocated for growth. The last priority is for social activity and learning.”

As a result, the study concluded, undernourished children become more apathetic and have impaired cognitive capacity.

According to Cody Williams, food and nutrition services manager for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District, about 2,500, or 58 percent, of the district’s 4,300 students qualify for the SVUSD meal program. Of that, about 900 are directly registered through state assistance programs.

Williams says the district currently gets most of its students registered through applications – but, if the Feed the Kids Act does what lawmakers expect, enrollment could bump significantly with automatic registration for all. A similar pilot program conducted across 14 California school districts last year saw a 13 percent increase in meal-program enrollment.

When the Santa Rosa City Schools began using Medi-Cal data, its enrollment jumped from about 7,500 to 8,500.

Williams says SB 138 is coming at a particularly good time for SVUSD. He says that, despite belt tightening across the board, food services is one of the few departments where the district has not made cuts.

“We still continue to offer and serve lots of daily offerings of five different fruits and five different vegetables at each school site daily, paired with students popular main dishes,” says Williams. “With more student participation,” he continues, “the better economy of scale (and) money coming in which enables our program integrity.”

And that’s nothing to shake a fishstick at.

Despite the old saying, maybe there is such thing as a free lunch. At least for those who need it most of all.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.