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From the Mouths of Babes: School Districts Misuse Food Funds, Fail to Provide Physical Education

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Healthy eating and physical activity are two important determinants of human health. Yet school districts in California are misusing food funds, and many do not provide required physical education classes. School districts are taking healthy food out of children's mouths, and telling them to sit down and shut up all day long. Children of color and low income children suffer first and worst. These school district actions are morally, strategically, and legally wrong.

A child has a moral right to a quality education that provides for the full development of the person, including the mind and the body. Simple justice requires equal access to public resources, including quality education, healthy food and physical education provided at taxpayers' expense. This is the first generation in the history of the nation in which our children will have a lower life expectancy than their parents because of the childhood obesity epidemic. Lack of healthy food and physical education contributes to a diminished quality of life, and to a shorter life, for our children.

Strategically, numerous studies have shown a link between proper nutrition and academic achievement. Studies show physically fit students do better academically, stay in school longer, and graduate at higher rates. This is common sense. This is documented by evidence based studies. This is what the best schools can provide when money is no object.

Healthy Eating Is a Right

At least 13 California school districts have illegally misappropriated millions of dollars intended to pay for meals for low-income students, according to a report prepared for the California Senate. Diverting funds discourages eligible students from seeking free or reduced-priced meals. These students are low income, and disproportionately of color. "From my point of view, they are literally taking food out of the mouths of kids," said Richard Zeiger, Chief Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction, as quoted in the report.

"Perhaps more troubling, department of Education officials candidly acknowledge they have no idea how big the problem may be and fear they may have uncovered only a hint of the ongoing abuse," according to the report. Oversight of these funds is carried out by 60 state examiners who monitor nearly 3,000 districts. Examiners have not completed all inspections required by law since 2001.

The biggest culprit is the Los Angeles Unified School District, which diverted $158 million over six years. Other districts named in the report include Oxnard, San Diego, Santa Ana, San Francisco, Baldwin Park, Centinela Valley and Compton. San Diego and Santa Ana are challenging the findings. LAUSD redirected funding for years, ignoring reports from administrators and its own inspector general.

The misappropriations are not funds pocketed for personal profit. In most cases they are attempts by school districts to use cafeteria funds to pay for a greater share of personnel, utility and other costs. Some charges were clearly improper.

"Those districts that are doing it illegal[ly] are playing hard ball," said Lynette Rock, food service director at Torrance Unified and president-elect of the nutrition association, as quoted in the report. "They say, 'You want to contact the state and let them know we're cheating? That's fine. How long do you want your job?'"

Most of the money comes from the federal government. Taking food from children's mouths implicates federal laws that govern how the food funds must be spent. These actions also implicate equal protection laws that guard against discriminatory impacts and discriminatory intent based on race, color or national origin. Children who qualify for free or reduced meals are low income and disproportionately of color. Taking food and physical education from these children are serious civil rights concerns.

The report summarizes its recommendations as follows:

  • "The Senate Oversight Office recommends that the state Department of Education assess the workload and staffing needs of its food services oversight team and request sufficient federal funding to enable the unit to aggressively carry out its responsibilities."
  • "The state also should require annual school audits to include the cafeteria account . . . ."
  • "[T]he state's audit guide should be revised to provide clear and comprehensive guidance on what expenses can be paid with food service revenues."
  • "We also recommend that CDE prepare simplified guidelines on acceptable charges and publicize enforcement actions, to encourage compliance."
  • "The state's oversight would benefit from legislation that reinforces new federal regulations and eliminates conflicts with others."
  • "The Senate Oversight Office also believes the level of ongoing scrutiny would be improved, perhaps substantially, if food service directors were given access to all cafeteria-related fnancial records."

The complete report can be found here: Jim Sweeny, California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes, Food Fight: Small team of state examiners no match for schools that divert student meal funds (Feb. 6, 2013).

Physical Education Is a Right

Half the school districts audited by the California Department of Education from 2004 to 2009 did not comply with state law physical education requirements of 20 minutes average per day in elementary school and 40 minutes in middle and high school. The California Court of Appeal has ruled that the law means what it says, and parents and students have the right to seek access to justice through the courts when districts fail to comply.

California voters are in "nearly unanimous agreement" (97%) that it is important for schools to encourage more physical activity during the school day, according to a 2012 Field poll. In addition, three in four (74%) think that providing kids with more physical activity during regular school hours will also have a positive effect on academic achievement. Large majorities believe public investments aimed at keeping people healthy pay for themselves in the long run by preventing disease and reducing health care costs (73%), and think that a comprehensive program to prevent childhood obesity would be worth it even if it increased government spending by billions of dollars (68%). Californians favor physical education in schools as the single most important policy for obesity prevention, across most party and socioeconomic lines. 89% support requiring physical education classes for four years in high school, according to a 2011 Field poll.

Healthy Eating and Physical Education

All California students deserve a quality education, including healthy eating and physical education. Public officials, parents, students, teachers can take the following actions to help students move more, stay healthy, live longer, and do their best in school and in life:

  1. Public officials including the Governor, the Superintendent of Education, the Attorney General, school boards, and district superintendents need to send a clear message that healthy food and physical education is good policy and required by law, and that both can be provided within existing budgets. The message sent to parents, children and the public if the law is not enforced is that children and their health don't matter.
  2. Schools need the resources to provide quality education. The people of California voted to tax themselves to preserve public education by passing Governor Brown's Proposition 30 in November 2012. The 20-point margin of victory was due to Latino, African American and Asian American voters, the people who disproportionately have children in public schools.
  3. The message that healthy food and physical education are required needs to be an integral part of the Team California for Healthy Kids initiative.
  4. The recommendations of the Food Fight report should be implemented now, including appropriate legislation.
  5. Each school district should consider the physical education policy adopted by LAUSD as a best practice example to adapt in its own schools.
  6. Disparities in healthy eating, physical education, and health for students of color and low-income students need to be addressed directly under equal protection laws, as in the LAUSD physical education policy.
  7. Effective monitoring of healthy eating and physical education requirements is necessary to ensure districts comply with physical education requirements. Parents, students and teachers are in the best position to monitor physical education in the long term, and should be educated, engaged and empowered to do so.
  8. Federal agencies must ensure compliance with healthy food, physical education, and equal protection laws and principles by school districts.

Click here to read about the struggle for quality education including physical education under education and equal protection laws.

Top: Norwood Elementary School physical education class. Photo by Tim Wagner for Partnership for the Public's Health

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