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Snow days mean missed meals for poor families

Dec 16, 2016

Most of us here in Michigan started our week digging out from the first widespread snowstorm of the season. And many kids across the state enjoyed their first snow day of the school year.

For some families, a snow day means an extra day of rest. But unexpected days off aren't always a cause for celebration for low-income families, whose resources are already stretched. 

More than 21 million kids nationwide receive free or reduced-priced school lunches. Long school breaks, like summer or winter break, can be perilous for poor children. But even a day without classes due to bad weather can mean a day without breakfast, lunch or both. According to NPR:

On an individual level, when forecasts predict bad weather, families who are food insecure do what everyone does: They stock up on items ahead of time. But when you're working with limited resources, this may not be much of an option. If the closure comes toward the end of the month, many lower-income families have run low on benefits by that point. Sometimes, parents skip meals so their children can eat.

Some school districts across the country try to mitigate the effects of snow days on families.

Washington D.C.’s public school system - where a full 76 percent of students were enrolled in either free or reduced-price school meals programs in 2103-2014 - opened up the kitchens in 10 schools around the city last winter for kids to come and eat breakfast and lunch on snow days. According to ThinkProgress:

That’s more than just a nice gesture. Hungry kids are distracted kids. There is a wealth of research illustrating not just the short-term learning benefits of providing free meals to all students, but vast long-term savings to society from raising graduation rates and reducing health and behavioral problems.

An unscheduled day off can also present problems for parents who work outside the home - especially mothers, single parents, low-income parents, parents of color, and part-time workers, according to ThinkProgress.

These demographics are more likely to work inflexible schedules, to have fewer vacation and sick days and are less likely to be able to afford things like daycare. Bryan Gilmer is Director of Marketing and Development for Urban Ministries of Durham – a North Carolina non-profit that connects the poor and homeless to food and shelter. He told North Carolina Public Radio

If you’re a middle class family, you might not think about it. If there’s a snow day announced, you’re kind of excited because you’re going to get the day off from work, you’re going to stay at home with your kids. They’re excited to go sledding, build a snowman, something like that. But if you’re a working poor family, that can be a crisis.

But some research suggests students are otherwise well served by decisions to cancel school for extreme winter weather.

Students are impacted less academically when school is called off, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. That’s because when school is held during inclement weather, many students can’t make it there.

That loss of instructional time can be detrimental to disadvantaged students who may already be behind their peers. Joshua Goodman, a researcher at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government wrote:

When students return to school after a snow day, they have all missed exactly the same lesson. Teachers can thus compensate by pushing all of their lesson plans back a day for the rest of the school year.