I’ll never forget the words of the Cleveland school administrator or how awful I felt when he uttered them. It was 2007, and, as the new editor of the Plain Dealer, the city’s daily newspaper, I was meeting with a group involved in improving public education. The topic turned to Cleveland’s “lake effect,” which dumps about 68 inches of snow on the city each year.
“The kids must love all the snow days,” I joked.
The room went silent. People exchanged glances.
“We try never to close the schools,” one man finally said. “When we do, a lot of kids won’t eat.”
I’m embarrassed to admit this had never occurred to me before.
Hunger in America today doesn’t look like the Dorothea Lange photos of hollow-eyed unemployed people during the Depression, but it is hunger even so. These days the hungry are often “white, married, clothed, and housed, even a bit overweight,” writes Tracie McMillan in this month’s story “The New Face of Hunger.”
One in six Americans says food runs out at least once a year, compared with one in 20 in many European countries. Emergency food programs have ballooned from a few hundred in 1980 to 50,000 today. At the same time schools quietly have become de facto food banks for astonishing numbers of children.
Last year about 19 million students received a free school lunch; another 2.5 million got a reduction in the price. On Fridays districts from Oklahoma City to Rochester, New York, help hand out food to tide kids over until Monday. In summer, cities like Washington, D.C., have created programs to fill the meal gap.
But no one has a good solution for unexpected snow days. Last year, depending on location, Cleveland schools closed for eight or nine days. That’s a lot of kids who didn’t get fed.
“There is a hidden crisis,” says Eric Gordon, chief executive officer for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where 45,000 free meals are served daily to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. “If you take us out of the picture, there are a lot of kids who won’t eat.”
Our society, Gordon says, has chosen to ignore this reality. He can’t.
Neither should we.
Thank you for reading,
Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief