Food service workers are in Washington to demand improvement of the 63-year-old School Lunch Program that feeds 30 million children every day.

“A lot of these kids are not getting breakfast in the morning and are coming to school hungry,” said Tracey Jones, an Aramark worker at Berger Elementary School in Dolton, Ill. “I’m looking at the child’s face and thinking ‘I can’t feed you.’ But how can I not help a hungry child?”

Jones is one of the 420,000 workers employed in school cafeterias across the country. Paid as little as $6.55 an hour with no benefits, many of these workers are going through the same suffering as the hungry students they serve.

In conjunction with the activity on Capitol Hill, the Service Employees International Union issued a statement today that said the poor working conditions in the industry are undermining the School Lunch Program’s mission to fight poverty and hunger.

In Washington 80 food service workers, members of SEIU, are calling for stronger government nutrition programs.

The workers are telling lawmakers, the union says, that improving food safety, nutrition, health and wellness and customer service is to raise workplace standards and provide living wages, benefits, paid sick leave, and training for all food service workers.

They are also telling lawmakers that increased federal reimbursement rates for meals are needed to enable schools to cover the rising costs of meeting dietary guidelines and to purchase fresh, healthy foods.

Finally, the workers are saying that in order to reach more struggling families it is necessary to relax eligibility requirements, streamline application processes and allow for regional variations in cost of living in determining eligibility.

The government’s child nutrition programs include the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, the Child and Adult Care Food Program and the Summer Food Service Program.

The economic crash is causing a sharp increase in the number of families who cannot provide their children with basic nutrition unless they plug into school food programs.

USA Today reported on June 10, “Nearly 20 million children now receive free or reduced price lunches in the nation’s schools, an all-time high, federal data show, and many school districts are struggling to cover their share of the meals’ rising costs.”

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