Smith opposes increasing free meals for poor students

Rosemary Shinohara

School Board member and state Senate candidate Don Smith says he's riled up about the idea of the Anchorage School District giving more poor children free meals.

The district administration is asking the School Board on Monday to approve a contract for boxed meals at 12 after-school programs for at-risk kids. The district now provides such meals at five schools. The cost for 12 schools would be $526,915.

The federal government fully reimburses the district for the cost of the meals, an administration memo says.

Even so, it's adding to the national debt, Smith said. And the district has to store, distribute and handle the meals, which consist of "grab and go" packs of chicken salad, tuna, cheese and turkey.

"I just think somewhere we've got to draw a line in the sand," he said.

Smith sent out a statement to local news media on the topic this week.

"I'm concerned that the school district is moving into a program that expands the entitlement mentality that we have in Alaska and our school district," he said.

In an interview, he said that though he's a legislative candidate, he was reacting as a member of the School Board.

"Philosophically, I have a real problem with it," he said. "I think our country's gone to hell in a hand basket. We're just about to become Greece."

Smith is running in the Republican primary for the open state Senate District H seat, which covers a broad swath of Midtown. Both he and his primary opponent, Clint Hess, call themselves conservative.

Asked for comment, Hess said he is torn on whether the district should provide the boxed meals: "No one benefits from trying to educate hungry kids but we do have to strike a balance."

State Rep. Berta Gardner, a Democrat who is unopposed for her Senate District H primary, said Smith needs to find a different issue.

"I would say you don't take a stand on principle at the expense of hungry children," she said.

"I've talked to a lot of school nurses who spend their own money for snacks" for hungry kids who come to see them for a health problem, she said.

Smith expects to be in the minority at Monday's board meeting.

Board president Jeannie Mackie said she hasn't heard of any other opposition to expanding the after-school meal program.

Personally, she said, she feels if the money's available, the district should offer the meals: "We're talking about feeding kids."

Board member Pat Higgins said 45 percent of the district's children are economically disadvantaged.

"Every child should be treated as if it's your child," he said.

Superintendent Jim Browder said he's for the meal program too.

"It's something we should do."

The schools that will get the meals, if the board approves the contract, are all Title 1 schools with concentrations of children from low-income families, Browder said.

They include the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, Begich Middle School and Fairview, Mountain View, Muldoon, North Star, Russian Jack, Williwaw, Willow Crest, Wonder Park, Ptarmigan and Taku elementary schools.

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.

Anchorage Daily News