Bill would let children have unserved school food

CHEYENNE — One out of every six children in Wyoming struggles with hunger. But a bill filed last week for consideration in the upcoming legislative session aims to improve those statistics.

“If a child goes home at night worried about what they’re going to have to eat, and we can solve that with even just a handful of kids, then I think it’s a bill worth doing,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette.

Senate File 54 would allow school districts to give surplus food to students who might otherwise go hungry. Items that could be sent home with students include “unserved food, whether packaged or unpackaged, whole produce, wrapped raw produce or unpeeled fruit.”

The bill also would allow schools to accept donations from nonprofits for “charitable purposes.” Moreover, it allows schools to donate leftovers to local nonprofits, such as a soup kitchen, which federal law has explicitly allowed since 2011.

“Certainly, this could be a way for a district to offer additional food to students,” said Shelley Hamel, chief academic officer for the Wyoming Department of Education. While the department does not take a position on legislation, Hamel said that if the bill makes it through the legislative process, the state “will stand at the ready to work with districts to ensure that everything moves smoothly.”

Wasserburger, who used to serve as principal of Twin Spruce Junior High in Gillette, said he remembers how the school “used to throw out good food every day.” The trashed food he saw was part of the roughly $1.2 billion in school lunches wasted every year, according to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

His proposed legislation complements the larger Wyoming Hunger Initiative, which Wyoming first lady Jennie Gordon launched last year. One of the program’s explicit goals is to end childhood hunger.

Since 1946, the National School Lunch Program has provided free and reduced-price school lunches for eligible children. That includes 36.42% of Wyoming schoolchildren, but statistics provided by the hunger initiative say not all of those kids are getting the full benefit of it.

Missed meals have repercussions for academic success, too. During the 2018-19 school year, Wyoming students who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch had a four-year high school graduation rate of 71.9%. That’s nearly 10 percentage points lower than the overall statewide average, according to newly released data from the Wyoming Department of Education.

When Wasserburger read about how other states, like California and Texas, have passed legislation to reduce school lunch waste by giving leftovers to students in need, he thought Wyoming, where one in eight people struggle with food insecurity, could benefit.

“If school districts want to do that, and their employees want to do that, then let’s let them do it,” he said.

Wasserburger is optimistic about his “cute little” bill’s chances of success during the upcoming legislative session, which starts Feb. 10.

He said he wants people to remember one thing, though: Participation in the school lunch surplus program is optional.

“It doesn’t require that districts do that,” he said. “It simply says they can if they choose to.”

Laramie County School District 1 officials aren’t sure about their position on a lunch surplus program yet.

“We never want to waste food, and we never want kids to go hungry,” Carla Bankes, the district’s nutrition services program administrator, said, but added that, for now, the bill is “too vague” to comment on.

“We would need to know more what the intent of the bill is,” Bankes said. “Our school board would need to decide how our 36 campuses would collect the food, preserve it and distribute it.”

Some schools in the district already have a shared table program, in which kids can leave unopened food products on a table for other students to take.

“We do our very best to have as little waste as possible,” she said.

Laramie County School District 2 Superintendent Jon Abrams said in an email that his district doesn’t “have enough leftovers to implement a surplus program at this time,” but that “the option to implement a program in the future would be beneficial.”

In the meantime, Abrams said the district “understands there is a need in our communities for food in many households,” and will continue to work with other programs, like the Friday Food Bag Foundation, “to ensure our students and families have what they need.”