When Providence decides on snow days, food for kids is a big factor

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Providence residents woke up to very little new snow Monday morning, it looked as though Mayor Jorge Elorza made the right call by deciding schools would open on a two-hour delay rather than close altogether.

But while the safety of students and teachers traveling to and from school is always the primary factor in deciding whether to call a snow day, it isn’t the only one.

“City families rely on the support services and programs that Providence Public Schools provide, including the more than 20,000 free or reduced-price meals provided daily to qualifying students,” Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the school department, said Sunday.

That’s right. Food is also a factor.

If the mayor chose to close schools Monday, it would have been the fifth consecutive day off for students. (That includes school closures on Thursday and Friday, plus the weekend.) Elorza didn’t want to take a chance that some students would be missing out on breakfast or lunch for another day.

It’s difficult to tell just how many Providence students rely on school food, but approximately 40% of city children – that’s 15,894 kids – under the age of 18 were living in poverty between 2010 and 2014, according to data compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count.

Of that group, Kids Count reported 7,500 children were living in extreme poverty, meaning their family income was below $12,018 a year in a family of four with two children or $9,458 in a family of three with two children.

Hart added that approximately 85% of Providence students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Of course, living in poverty or being eligible for free or reduced lunch doesn’t automatically mean that a child isn’t receiving steady meals at home. Poor families do have access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. In Providence, 21,681 children under the age of 18 were receiving SNAP benefits in 2015, according to Kids Count.

Similarly, families with household incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty level are eligible to use the federally-funded nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). In 2015, about 8,720 of the 13,327 Providence residents eligible for the WIC program were using it, according to Kids Count.

Providence was the only one of the four urban core cities in Rhode Island that chose to keep school open Monday. Central Falls, Pawtucket and Woonsocket each gave students another snow day. Warwick, the state’s second-largest city, also closed schools on Monday. Cranston, the third-largest city, gave students a two-hour delay.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan