Government Officials Direct A Christian School To Choose Between Faith And Food
It’s breakfast time at Grant Park Christian Academy. Children filter in from all corners of the one-mile-square, low-income neighborhood in East Tampa, Florida. Some scamper in alone, some with a friend. Not a few are escorted more quietly by their moms — mostly single women, grateful for somewhere to leave their children during the long day’s work ahead. Two vanloads of children will soon swell the ranks, shepherded in by the principal, who’s driving one of the vans today.
The students wear clean white shirts, crisply ironed; many have on ties. Nearly everyone shoulders a colorful backpack. Most of the children smile shyly and murmur a polite “hello” as they move toward the neat array of food trays by the kitchen.
On the trays this morning are Frosted Flakes, apple slices, and juice boxes. The children sweep them up and quickly diverge into small, gossipy groups — boys at one line of tables, girls at the other. They eat happily, prying out each other’s secrets and boldly proclaiming news of the day. They giggle and whisper, stealing frequent, furtive glances at the gigglers and whisperers at the table across the way.
After a while, five students — representing each of the school’s three grade groups (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) — make their way to the little stage at one side of the room, patiently awaiting the principal’s booming call for quiet and his signal for them to lead the morning pledges: first, to the Christian flag, then the Stars and Stripes, then the Bible. After that, one child leads the Lord’s Prayer, followed by another offering a more personal intercession.
It's Wednesday, so music is on the program: some praise songs, distinguished more by enthusiastic clapping than strong singing. The principal, noting this, prods the 60-or-so boys and girls before him to better warbling.
“On this next one,” he says, “lift your voice and give God the best you can.”
They oblige, loud and sweet. Giving “God the best you can” is an idea that’s been modeled well for all of them, in their time at this academy. It’s a commitment that has shielded them from some of the worst things others would have inflicted on them.
Pastor Alfred Johnson didn’t have a dream, but he knew some men who did.
What Alfred — who lived in the Grant Park community as a child — did have was a hole in his heart where his enthusiasm used to be. After pastoring one church with considerable success for most of 20 years, he one day found himself longing for something else.
“My soul isn’t happy,” he told family and friends. “Something isn’t right.”
Then, in the space of a few short days, two different deacons came to him, describing a dream each had had about him. Neither had shared their vision with the other, but Alfred marveled to find the dreams eerily similar. Both involved him sitting at a long table, circled by other church leaders. In one, the table suddenly broke in half. In the other, a voice directed that Alfred be presented with a double portion of what was given to the rest.
The meaning was clear enough, as far as Alfred was concerned. His days as a full-time pastor were coming to an end. And his work as a community outreach leader was about to begin.
Vividly aware of the problems plaguing the low-income neighborhoods around him, he formed the Faith Action Ministry Alliance (FAMA), whose mission he describes as bringing together “believers from for-profits, not-for-profits, churches, and Christian heads of households to coordinate services that bring neighborhood uplift.” FAMA does its lifting via health fairs, youth recreation programs, real estate assistance, financial planning courses, community meetings — and Grant Park Christian Academy.
Alfred and his wife, Donna, had canvassed the families of the impoverished community well enough to know how much the predominantly single parents wanted a better learning environment for their children. Too many youngsters in that area, Alfred says, were coping with the stress in their life by “hollering and fighting” — a tough combination for public schoolteachers and administrators, since “they can’t exercise firm boundaries, and they can’t pray for the children.”
Grant Park Christian Academy would offer an alternative. With a nonprofit organization, “Step Up for Students,” providing full scholarships, and a church providing the building, Alfred soon had all the children his small, mostly volunteer staff could handle, and a waiting list that just keeps growing. Parents loved the small classes, strong discipline, and committed teachers. And one more thing: the food.
Early on, when the academy first opened, Alfred was astonished at how many of the children came to school with nothing for lunch. Or, in some cases, something worse than nothing.
“You’d see parents bringing Twinkies,” he remembers. “One lady brought two hot dogs. Two … to split between four kids. I don’t mean two fully made hot dogs. She sent them with just the franks.” Another mom sent her child each day with a Little Debbie cake and a bag of chips.
Alfred knew many of the families were on food stamps and genuinely hard-pressed for money, but “there’s no way I could have these kids eating that junk.” Nor was he willing to dismiss students who couldn’t really concentrate with growling stomachs.
So, soon after the academy launched, Alfred and his staff worked to secure the school’s participation in the federal government’s national school lunch program (administered by the Florida Department of Agriculture), which offers funding for nutritious breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. The additional funding proved a big help — and became even bigger, as the school’s enrollment grew.
Alfred then turned to the person he knew was most capable of creating nutritious meals on a meager budget: his wife.
“She’s into nutrition,” Alfred says, a little woefully. “We haven’t had regular milk in our refrigerator for years. I eat uncured turkey bacon. No pork. No white bread. No sugar.” Donna harbors a particular passion for organic fruit and vegetables — and if that kind of diet was good for the prophet Daniel, Alfred decided, it’s good enough for the children of Grant Park.
Donna made the academy’s kitchen her own, stretching the school’s $10,000-a-month food budget with trips to farmers markets, buying in bulk. “Big boxes of organic bananas,” Alfred says. “You’d be amazed. Those kids want those bananas.”
“They’re banana crazy!” Donna laughs. “We do banana breakfast, banana lunch, and banana snacks. But if they get some bananas in them, that’s good as nutrition. I try to get them as much as I can.” The bananas and other fruits and vegetables quickly made a vivid difference in the children’s vitality. Donna even started a garden on a stretch of yard by the school’s playground, teaching the students how to grow good food to supplement what the school can afford.
“There’s something about nutrition that draws these kids,” Alfred says. With full bellies and balanced diets, “the kids are able to focus in class. We’re now able to prepare meals that are at least reaching a minimum threshold of good nutrition.”
Unfortunately, the federal funding for those meals left the school vulnerable to a threat Alfred and his team could hardly have imagined.
What Alfred found he needed most, in the early years at Grant Park, was a gifted principal who could share his vision for the school and its community. He found him one day when he made his monthly trip to preach in a church for the homeless. Another church stood next door, and something about it stirred Alfred’s curiosity. He decided to visit it on his next free Sunday.
There he met Pastor Terrence Fleming, who shepherded his church in between day work as a high school administrator, evening work in real estate, and full-time duty as a father of seven. Other than that, his time was his own. One day, he stopped by the school to visit with Alfred for a little while, before a dentist appointment.
Later, coming out of that appointment, he felt led by the Spirit of the Lord to give Alfred a call. “Pastor Johnson,” he said, “did you have something you wanted to ask me?”
Alfred offered him a job he could sink his teeth into.
“It’s a school,” Terrence says, “but it’s also a ministry.” Ministry means driving the school van on days when no one else is available, and giving his students rides when he sees them walking through rough parts of the neighborhood. Evenings on the phone, talking with parents to learn more of the children’s home environment and ways he and others might help. All that on top of serving as principal, teaching upper-division classes, and mentoring students in things at least as important as geometry and geography.
“We're in a community that deals with a high level of poverty,” Terrence says. “There's a certain mindset that accompanies that. But we don't allow anyone to be a victim here. We teach our kids that, regardless of whatever circumstance they come from, with faith in God, hard work, good morals, good discipline, honor, and respect, they'll be able to achieve whatever it is they desire. And there is no [one] holding them down.”
“You can’t have it both ways,” Terrence tells his students. “Either you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you — or you can’t. You trust God, you work hard, and you can determine your level of success. If you do what God says, God is going to do what He says.”
Children at Grant Park learn love for their country and respect for law enforcement. They’re taught that God is the author of life and that every life is precious to Him. That God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman, for life. Terrence and his team even take them out into the neighborhoods, once a quarter, to pick up trash and help older people in the community with difficult chores and small repairs.
“We want to help the neighbors see,” he says, “that we have a sense of pride and respect for this community.”
The neighbors have noticed.
“I knew we were going to have an impact, but this …,” Alfred says. “We’ve had kids who’ve been kicked out of other schools, even multiple other schools. They come here and experience just the love, the embrace. It’s changing their lives.
“Our ultimate goal here, of course, is to raise good Christians,” he says. “But good citizens, too. People who are able to get along with other people — manners, all of that — so that they're not a danger to society. They're a benefit to society. The children in our school are not going to be a threat to your family or mine.”
“We have a great relationship with law enforcement,” Terrence says. “They’ve seen a turn in what’s going on in the community. They can tell the kids who attend Grant Park Christian Academy versus the students who are in a public school, based off their manners and behavior.
“We have parents that don’t even have kids at this school, but they speak well of it,” he says.
At one community meeting, a mother spoke up. “My children have been in the school now for many years, and they’ve learned so much,” she said. “Their behavior and everything is just so different.
“I’m not much of a Bible person or anything,” she said, “but my children are learning it in this school — and they’re bringing it home. And …” Tears came to her eyes. “It’s changing our family.”
“Just to watch these kids be kids is quite rewarding,” Alfred says. “We have middle schoolers here that, if they weren't here, the mess they would be in is just unbelievable. Here, they're able to be kids.
“This generation is being introduced to so much stuff that's aging them too quickly, from the internet to everything else. We can't stop all of that. But there's some guidance and a shield that we're able to give them while they’re here that allows them to just be kids. I'm happy to see that.”
The shield came startlingly into play one day last summer when, sorting through some accumulated email, Alfred opened a note from the Florida Department of Agriculture. It was a new U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) directive ordering all schools to implement Biden administration changes to Title IX.
The note offered a blunt ultimatum: Grant Park could join the administration in embracing its view of sex and gender — requiring pronouns, adjusting hiring practices and dress codes, letting boys identify as girls and use the girls’ bathroom facilities, etc. — or the school would forfeit all federal funding.
Including the lunch program. No more breakfasts, no more lunches, no more snacks.
In effect, government officials were saying, Grant Park could go “woke” or its children could go hungry.
“I read that,” Alfred remembers, “and said, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’” He immediately called an emergency meeting of the school’s board of trustees, who agreed unanimously to “divorce from the government” and reject the directive. All agreed they would rather close the school than give in to the Biden administration’s demands. “We weren’t about to make that kind of moral compromise … allow them to dominate our faith over food.”
Alfred pledged to find another way to feed the children of Grant Park Christian Academy — but realistically, he knew how hard that was going to be. The people of his community couldn’t come up with $10,000 a month, indefinitely, and that’s what it would cost to keep the current meals coming. Even if he could land some generous outside donors, “it still would’ve been very tight.”
One of the board members took his concerns over the situation back to his personal prayer circle. In that circle was a man named Harley Riedel — an attorney, and a supporter of Alliance Defending Freedom. Harley was more than willing to take on the case himself, but he suggested that ADF might be even better positioned to do so. He made a call.
Julie Marie Blake is senior counsel on the ADF Regulatory Practice legal team — the team charged, among other things, with keeping track of what the federal government is up to. Some legal threats are easy to see coming, she says; some aren’t. In truth, the USDA’s decision to force schools to accept — through Title IX — the Biden administration’s view of sexuality was not much of a shock.
“Title IX is something of a super statute, in that it applies to every federal agency,” Julie says. “It says that if any of your federal money from any federal program goes to some entity that has education aspects, Title IX applies, and you can’t have sex discrimination in any of your activities.” Which was fine, she says, back when the statute was applied consistently along those lines, and only prohibited discrimination based on sex.
But once the federal government began redefining sex discrimination to include gender identity, “that was bad news for every public, charter, and secular private school. Because then you have all of the problems that come with redefining sex, in a context where sex once set the boundary lines.
“Now, the whole works,” Julie says, “sports, bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, sleeping arrangements, dress codes, pronouns — is being rearranged by ideology, rather than biology.” The Biden administration has promoted all of these things via executive order, she says, enabling officials to move forward without congressional approval of the changes being implemented.
In theory, Julie says, religious schools like Grant Park should be immunized against such efforts. Title IX comes with a “robust” caveat, written into the statute, “that says if what the government is trying to do conflicts with the tenets of a religious organization, then that organization is exempt.”
But while the Department of Education honors that religious exemption, Grant Park’s case — because their federal money is tied to food — comes under the auspices of both the USDA and state program officials. And state officials elected to ignore the exemption request.
Which put Grant Park in an awkward position, legally. Asking for an exemption is one thing; having it officially granted is another. Was the school obliged to comply with the government’s directives, until such time as they received formal permission not to? If so, could USDA officials choose to simply ignore the request for exemption indefinitely — in effect, forcing the school to comply with the directive, exemption or no?
Grant Park was far from the only religious school asking those questions, but the academy staff faced a particularly urgent deadline. School would be starting in just a few weeks. What were they going to feed the children?
Finally, state agriculture officials announced their decision: the school would “comply with all federal program regulations,” or forfeit its participation in the National School Lunch Program.
“The government has no legal authority to do this,” Julie says. “It’s wildly unconstitutional for half a dozen reasons. But their ideology has literally gotten to the point that they want to take food away from hungry children, if a school won't sign off on the administration’s view of sex and gender.”
Grant Park filed the lawsuit, and … media ensued. The kind of headlines no administration wants to see — “Biden Taking Away Food From Poor Kids,” etc. Suddenly, government officials wanted to deal.
“The federal people decided — at an unheard-of speed — to issue a response on the exemption letter, saying that they respected it,” Julie says. “It was a whirlwind. A win without a settlement. A win without a judicial decision. The government just caved.”
Best of all, she says, the caving benefited more than Grant Park. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture posted a statement on their website: ‘For every religious school: You don't have to write us to request an exemption letter. We're just going to automatically respect everyone's religious exemption under Title IX.’”
“The Biden administration only pushes so far as somebody is courageous enough to stand against them,” says Erica Steinmiller-Perdomo, an ADF legal counsel who worked on the school’s case. “Grant Park was courageous enough to take that stand and say, ‘No, this isn’t right.’ Because they did that, all religious schools are protected, and the funding for all their school lunches was saved.”
“We even had Muslims who wrote us and thanked us for taking the stand,” Alfred says. “But ADF took it on, and they were willing to do it pro bono. We had people willing to fight with us, and for us. Not only for our sake, but for others’.”
“We’re thankful to Alliance Defending Freedom,” Terrence says. “I like that they take on the bullies. Hit the bully right in the nose.”
“When push comes to shove and the federal government is at your door,” Julie says, “you need not stand alone. That's the time to call ADF. You can stand up to the Biden administration and state officials — and you can win.
“I wish more people had the tenacity and grit to want to step forward and say, ‘Hey, I'm going to stand up. Not just for me, but for everyone. Someone has got to stand up and do it.’”
“We just stayed the course,” Terrence says, smiling. “And as you can see … our kids are still enjoying their meals, daily.”
It’s the kind of school where, when the air-conditioning goes out on a boiling, 90-something-degrees-in-the-shade Florida day, the children hang around school anyway. Long after classes are dismissed.
It’s the kind of school where a dad, seeing his four children aching with the recent loss of their mother, offers them a day at a nearby amusement park … but they choose, instead, to go back to school. They just want to be with these teachers, these friends, in this place.
Vivrene Hale is one of the volunteers at Grant Park; she is retired, in her 70s, and helps the younger children who are learning to read.
“We’re helping them walk into their destiny,” she says, looking at the children gobbling breakfast around her. “We’ve got some preachers here. Some astronauts. Some teachers. So, we want to do everything we can to help.
“We want to be on the map for doing good,” she says. “This school has made a good difference. And we want to keep on doing that.” She smiles. “Maybe even make a better one.”