by Clay Weinberg
On first glance, the small group of teenagers making their way through the Capitol building might have looked like a school group on a field trip. But if you took a second look, you would notice the white paper plates they carried, emblazoned with simple sentences: “When I’m hungry, I can’t concentrate in class.” “Being hungry makes it hard to focus.” One hoisted a sign with an image of the Golden Arches and a single word: “McCancelled.”
On February 5, groups from across Washington converged on Olympia for the Washington State Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition’s annual Hunger Action Day, there to meet their representatives and encourage them to back hunger- and poverty-fighting legislation. Among them were students from Rainier Beach High School, organized by WA-BLOC and Rainier Valley Food Bank, to advocate for the resources they need to access an equitable public education.
A major bill affecting student food security was coming up for a vote that week: HB 1508, or the “Breakfast after the Bell” bill. The bill would allocate free breakfast at school to students who receive free and reduced lunch and allow them to eat it during class, after the start of the school day. It would also set aside increased funding for farm-to-school programs, a welcome change for students tired of the nutritionally lacking current options on the school lunch menu.
These topics were nothing new to the RBHS students. They came armed with the most powerful persuasive tool of all: personal experience. In their meetings with representatives Eric Pettigrew and Sharon Tomiko Santos of the 37th district, students told stories of their struggles to stay properly fed while at school, a task made more difficult by subpar lunches, short lunch hours and rules about eating during class.
Students from food-insecure families described being forced to wait until 1 p.m. to eat on days they had gone without breakfast. Even then, there was no guarantee of having enough time or enough food to eat, with lunch lasting only half an hour and long lines in the cafeteria and nearby supermarkets. Students who received reduced-price lunch but couldn’t afford the co-pays told stories of stealing from supermarkets just to get through the day, exposing themselves to the risk of criminalization.
Public schools, they argued, have an obligation to ensure that all students are physically able to participate in learning. A common thread running through all the students’ stories was that of distraction and exhaustion stemming from hunger, which put them at an educational disadvantage compared to their more well-off classmates. And even when they weren’t physically suffering from hunger, their options in the cafeteria were slim. One chaperone brought a photo of a recent cafeteria lunch: cheese pizza, burnt to a crisp.
There was another common thread in their testimonies, however: hope for change. All across the country right now, youth are rising up, speaking back to those with legislative power and telling them in no uncertain terms that they will not accept things as they are. From Parkland, Florida to Seattle, Washington, a wave of youth activism is swelling.
Good news came just a few days after Hunger Action Day: on February 9, HB 1508 passed the State Senate with overwhelming support. When RBHS students eat breakfast in class in the future, they will know it’s in large part because of students like them who took initiative to speak up for change.
Featured image by Zion Thomas