An ‘innovation tax’ for vocational education in Salem – no school lunches for students

The cafeteria at Willamette Career Academy looks like any other high school, with round tables that quickly fill up during breaks and empty with students when classes resume.

But the room lacks something present in nearly every other Salem school — the pungent smell of cafeteria food being cooked.

The public career education program, now in its second year, has so far been unable to serve meals to its 270 students, who are bussed in from schools in the counties of Marion and Polk to follow one of the six specialized programs.

That’s because he’s not eligible for federal money to cover the cost of school lunches, which schools across the United States rely on to feed their students.

It’s what Principal Johnie Ferro calls an “innovation tax.”

“The system just hasn’t been updated to interact with the school like we do these days,” Ferro said.

Schools across the United States depend on federal money to provide breakfast and lunch for students. The National School Lunch Program, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, has reimbursed schools for the cost of student food since 1946, recognizing that students are better able to engage in school and learn if they are not hungry during the day.

Public, charter and private nonprofit schools can participate, as well as some daycares.

Without this money, most schools could not afford to provide meals, especially to students who are entitled to free food based on family income. At the careers academy, Ferro said it was mostly students.

But the career academy is operated by the Willamette Educational Service District and is technically not considered a school.

Instead, it’s a collaboration between 12 regional school districts, including Woodburn, Gervais, Jefferson and North Marion, to provide students with specialized vocational training not available at often smaller high schools. that they frequent.

High school students can study construction, diesel mechanics, cosmetology, health sciences, manufacturing, or computer science.

They spend half of their school day on the Salem campus and the other half at their home high school.

Students are typically on campus at the careers academy during what would normally be their lunch break. Ferro said the program began the process of applying for school lunch reimbursements with the US Department of Agriculture in May 2021. A year later, they got a ruling — WCA was ineligible.

Ferro said that in addition to not being considered a school, the academy schedule affects his eligibility. Since students spend half their day in Salem and the other half at their home high school, they may be able to “double the expense” by having a meal at their regular school and career academy.

A similar program within the Salem-Keizer school district, the Career Technical Education Center, provides meals for students, but it is a single-district program and students spend an entire day there on campus.

Ferro said efforts by the Oregon Department of Education to support their federal candidacy were unsuccessful. And the career academy has no money in its budget to pay the meal bill.

The Educational Services District enlisted the help of U.S. Senator Ron Wyden’s office. A spokesperson confirmed that the senator’s office was working with the federal Department of Agriculture to try to find a solution.

“Enabling Oregon’s youth to eat a nutritious school lunch is critical to fighting hunger and fully equipping them to learn in the classroom,” Wyden said in an emailed statement. “The students of Willamette Career Academy deserve this opportunity, and I wholeheartedly agree with federal and state authorities in helping the school cut red tape in order to receive the reimbursement needed to provide these school meals. .”

For now, career academy students can bring packed lunches or breakfasts from their home school district on the bus. But Ferro said the lack of hot meals is something many students mentioned during assessments at the end of last school year – and no hot lunch in the school cafeteria means there is fewer opportunities to build community by sharing a meal together, she said.

“They can’t learn at the same rate, they can’t access education in the same way when their basic needs aren’t being met,” she said.

Ferro said she and other Educational Services District employees continue to work on the issue — in part, she said, because other Educational Services Districts around Oregon are interested in the issue. implementation of similar programs.

“We really want our children to have access to meals. But we know we’re not going to be the only state program like this,” she said.

Contact journalist Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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