We have to say we were taken aback at a statistic in a story we published earlier this week concerning the school lunch program.
According to student nutrition services director Dean Hamburg, 46 percent of students in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District qualify for the free or reduced school meal program.
Nearly half the kids in Peninsula schools need assistance to get a healthy meal in their bellies every day.
That number is bad enough; never mind that it's above the state average.
No wonder the district is now hoping to take advantage of a pilot program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will make it easier for low-income families to participate.
On a regular basis, district student nutrition folks field phone calls from frantic parents -- the "8:30 confessions," as Hamburg described them -- who don't have the money to feed their own kids and need help.
In a sense, none of this should be a surprise. We know what the economic situation is on the Peninsula. We know that, while jobs have disappeared, the number of kids in school hasn't dropped by much. There's only one logical conclusion -- these are families who have set roots in our community. Perhaps they've always had roots here; perhaps they simply can't afford to leave, trapped by economic circumstances.
Think about it. Nearly half the kids in school. If you have a child in school, chances are your child is sitting next to one who needs a meal and can't afford it. Your child is sitting next to one whose stomach is grumbling and can't concentrate as well as your child, who got a decent breakfast that morning.
We all know that we're struggling, money's tight, jobs are scarce and we're all scrambling, doing whatever we can think of to turn things around. We're all trying to do the best we can.
With some smarts and some luck, our fortunes will turn around.
In the meantime, as we work toward making things better, we have to remember who we're trying to make things better for. And if nearly half the kids in this school system are struggling to listen to the teacher while their tummies are empty, they may not be ready to take part in the improved economy when we do turn things around.
Communities and their economic prosperity are built by the people who live in it, especially the families who set roots. The efforts of school nutrition folks play an important role in that development of community. They are to be commended, and they deserve our support.
In short: Feeding hungry kids isn't charity, it's a matter of community survival and prosperity.
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