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COMMENTARY

With so many in R.I. living in poverty, school meals must be a priority

During the next session, legislators should support Universal School meals for all public school students to help combat childhood hunger

Rhode Island Kids Count in its 2023 publication noted that “Children in poverty, especially those who experience poverty in early childhood and for extended periods, are more likely to have physical and behavioral health problems, experience hunger, difficulty in school, become teen parents, and earn less or be unemployed as adults."Matt McClain/The Washington Post

The ending of the pandemic-era Child Tax Credit (CTC) that was instituted by the Biden administration as a means of defraying the financial burden placed on families living below the poverty line has had a cascading effect in Rhode Island.

Child poverty has doubled in two years, according to data from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. This means that a family of three earning $23,860 per year is unable to feed their household. Now, 41 percent of households with children in Rhode Island are food insecure.

In my role as a public school teacher, I am intimately confronted with the harsh reality of what hunger and poverty looks like. Child poverty is a distressing outcome of failures within our governmental systems that have persistently left families behind, especially our most vulnerable children. The adverse impacts of child poverty are not short-lived. They reverberate throughout children’s entire lives into adulthood, extending into communities and spiraling into cycles of generational poverty and trauma.

Rhode Island Kids Count in its 2023 publication noted that “Children in poverty, especially those who experience poverty in early childhood and for extended periods, are more likely to have physical and behavioral health problems, experience hunger, difficulty in school, become teen parents, and earn less or be unemployed as adults. Children in poverty are less likely to be enrolled in preschool, more likely to attend schools that lack resources, and have fewer opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.”

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The implications noted above are stark reminders of the urgent need for support and solutions to address the systemic drivers and disinvestment in poor communities — predominantly Black, Latino, and Indigenous ones. RI Kids Count noted: “Between 2017 and 2021, 56 percent of Native American, 30 percent of Hispanic, and 25% of Black children in Rhode Island lived in poverty, followed by 12 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander children and 10 percent of white children.” The chronic neglect, combined with the lack of robust investment in small businesses located in the urban core helps to perpetuate inequality and inequity, pushing children and their families further and further into poverty.

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For many of these children, school lunches are their only sustenance, providing them with hot lunches that are a lifeline in their daily battle with hunger.

During my years in the Rhode Island General Assembly, I dedicated my efforts to advocating for the wellbeing of children and families. Not being able to implement laws at a speed that would rescue kids from hunger, I pushed to open food pantries located directly in schools where students could access emergency ready-to-eat meals that they may take home.

But food pantries aren’t a panacea and do not replace good public policies aimed at combating hunger. Passing Universal School meals for all public school children must be a priority in the next legislative session.

My life’s story has been the catalyst and serves as the driving force in my fight to end childhood hunger and poverty. I grew up in poverty. I still remember all the times I went to school hungry. It wasn’t that my parents did not care. They did. However, no matter how hard they worked they just could not make ends meet.

My family’s circumstances closely parallel those of my students. Persistent income disparities remain one of the key indicators that keep families from ascending the economic ladder.

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Childhood hunger and poverty are policy decisions. Combating these formidable challenges and putting children on the path to thriving requires intentional legislative effort. It necessitates reaching across the aisle and engaging legislators with opposing views, challenging them to recognize the inherent humanity in children and to foster a genuine desire to help them.

The failure by the government to enact laws that support our most vulnerable children continues to have a devastating impact. The undeniable reality is that hunger and poverty take a toll on students’ mental health and physical health. The resulting poor academic performance, myriad of behavioral issues, higher dropout rates, lower graduation rates, substance use and abuse, and teen parenting are only symptoms of the broader issue which is the dehumanization, lack of care, and lack of empathy for children.

It is my fervent hope that all of us, especially those who hold the levers in government, recognize the profound humanity of all children, especially those living in poverty, and fight tooth and nail to rescue them from these dire circumstances.

Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, M. Ed., is a public school teacher and is a former member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives, representing the 5th District from 2017 to 2023. She is also the founder of the Global Fund to End Childhood Hunger and Poverty, a 501c3 nonprofit organization in R.I.