Central York reverses decision to cut summer lunch program

FILE – In this Dec. 2, 2010, file photo, a child pays for a lunch consisting of fruits and vegetables during a school lunch program at Fairmeadow Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif. California and Pennsylvania both passed laws in 2017 to outlaw "lunch shaming" of children for unpaid meals, with the Pennsylvania measure that became law in November requiring communication about money owed on meal accounts to be done between school officials and parents, and not involve the student. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File)

The Central York school board reversed its decision Monday night to cut its federal summer lunch program.

On April 15, the board shot down a motion that would have added a third site to its summer lunch program by a 4-4 vote, effectively ending the initiative at all sites in 2019 if the board did not make a motion to reinstate the program.

An outcry from parents and community members over the loss brought many to Monday's meeting, demanding the board bring the program back. They said it's a need for those who don't always have steady meals and that some single parents or families with no income in the summer rely on it.

"I think we’re all one health crisis away from bankruptcy," said Lori Wiltshire, district resident and school counselor at Hayshire Elementary.

The board ultimately voted to reinstate the program — including the addition of a third site — by a vote of 8-0. 

The district had two locations — at Stony Brook and Hayshire elementary schools — the past two summers. This year will be the fourth year of a five-year approval for the program from the state Department of Education.

The 2019 program will run for nine weeks, Monday through Thursday, June 10 to Aug. 8. 

The third site, at York Learning Center, is intended to support the North York community, Superintendent Michael Snell said. The average assessed value of a home in North York is $71,000, compared with $175,000 and $164,000 in Manchester and Springettsbury townships, respectively, he said.

The total free and reduced lunch students coming from North York is 67%, a rate higher than any other area within the district, he said.

In April, board members Veronica Gemma, Joseph Gothie, Jane Johnson and Karl Peckmann opposed expanding the program, which effectively scuttled it outright. 

Gemma and Gothie said Monday that they were open to keeping the two sites while collecting additional data on needs-based eligibility for residents using the third site before adding it. Though, Gothie said, even if 25% don't need it, it would still be beneficial.

According to federal program guidelines, that data is not available to school districts.

Gemma questioned the purpose of the program, saying she'd seen comments on Facebook pointing to abuse of the service, which she said should be need-based only. 

Her comments received backlash from board member Michael Wagner.

"I doubt that people are showing up at our schools just so they can get a free lunch," he said.

School district resident Shelva Eller called it a handout with no accountability, warning that responsibility for children is shifting from parents to school districts and choice from individual charity to collective support.

"Questioning whether a program can be validated and ... is hitting the target it's being aimed at is not an evil motive," Gothie said.

Central York parent Ashley Barshinger said that as a federally funded program, the lunch doesn't cost taxpayers any more money, so why not do it?

Several proponents spoke about the benefits beyond lunch — providing a safe place for children to foster relationships with friends and the school community, including police and counselors, and opportunities such as yoga, volunteering for older students and access to a lending library.

"I think it teaches (students) to be compassionate, to care about their community and be the pillar and hold other people up when they maybe can't do it themselves," said parent Jennifer Eckert.

Resident Vanesa Jimenez made an impassioned plea for the program, saying she has tried other means of financial help.

"When you go (to the welfare office) with your child and they tell you you make too much money and yet you're still struggling," she said, the lunch program is invaluable in filling needs.

Gothie listed all his donations throughout the year to make a point that he does not lack compassion and it's not a "good versus evil battle" between board members.

Gothie added that perceived political division on the board led someone to vandalize Gemma's house with mustard over the weekend and grab him by the shoulders two years ago at a polling location. In part, Gothie ultimately backed the program in order to put to rest a divisive issue, he said.