An “innovation tax” for Salem career education — no school meals for students

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

But the room is lacking something present at nearly every other school in Salem — the permeating smell of cafeteria food being cooked.

The publicly-run 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 around Marion and Polk counties to attend one of six specialty programs.

That’s because it’s not eligible for federal money to cover the cost of school meals, something schools across the U.S. rely on to feed their students.

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

“The system just hasn’t been updated to engage with school the way we’re doing it these days,” Ferro said.

Schools around the U.S. rely on federal money to provide breakfast and lunch to students. The National School Lunch Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has reimbursed schools for the cost of feeding students since 1946, recognizing students are better able to engage in school and learn if they’re not hungry during the day.

Public, charter and nonprofit private schools can participate, as well as some child care centers.

Without that money, most schools couldn’t afford to provide meals — especially to students who qualify for free food based on their family’s income. At the career academy, Ferro said that’s a majority of students.

But the career academy is run by the Willamette Education Service District and isn’t technically considered a school. 

Instead, it’s a collaboration between 12 regional school districts, including Woodburn, Gervais, Jefferson and North Marion, intended to offer students specialized career education that’s not available at the often smaller high schools they attend.

High schoolers can study construction, diesel mechanics, cosmetology, health science, manufacturing or computer science. 

They spend half their school day at the campus in Salem and half at their home high school.

Students are generally on campus at the career academy during what would normally be their lunch period. Ferro said the program began the process to apply for school meal reimbursements with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in May 2021. One year later, they got a ruling — WCA wasn’t eligible.

Ferro said aside from not being considered a school, the academy’s schedule affected its eligibility. Because students spend half their day in Salem and half at their home high school, it’s possible they’d be able to “double dip” by getting a meal at their regular school and at the career academy.

A similar program within the Salem-Keizer School District, the Career Technical Education Center, does provide meals to students, but it’s a single-district program, and students spend a full day on campus there.

Ferro said efforts from the Oregon Department of Education to support their federal application have been unsuccessful. And the career academy doesn’t have money in its budget to foot the bill for meals.

The educational service district solicited help from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s office. A spokesman confirmed the senator’s office is working with the federal Department of Agriculture to try to reach a solution.

“The opportunity for young Oregonians to have a nutritious lunch at school is a must to fight hunger and fully equip them to learn in the classroom,” Wyden said in an email statement. “Students at Willamette Career Academy deserve that opportunity, and I’m all in on working with federal and state officials to help the school cut through the bureaucracy to receive the reimbursement needed to provide these meals at school.”

For now, career academy students can bring bagged lunches or breakfasts from their home school district on the bus. But Ferro said the lack of hot meals is something many students mentioned on evaluations at the end of last school year — and no hot lunch in the school cafeteria means there’s less opportunity to build community by sharing a meal together, she said.

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

Ferro said she and the other educational service district employees are continuing to work on the issue — in part, she said, because other educational service districts around Oregon are interested in implementing similar programs.

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

Correction: This article was updated to correct the name of Willamette Education Service District. Salem Reporter apologizes for the error.

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

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.