Mental Health & Well-being, Social Justice

Hunger Pangs: Food Insecurity in Schools

Hunger Pangs: Food Insecurity in Schools

By Adam Stone

This past summer, the Wyoming Valley West School District in Pennsylvania sent home an alarming letter to parents. If they didn’t pay off their kids’ school lunch debt promptly, “the result may be your child being removed from your home and placed in foster care.”

Clearly, something is very wrong in the world of childhood nutrition. While a range of programs in Canada and the United States aim to ensure kids have ready access to healthy meals throughout the school day, many K-12 students aren’t getting the food they need.

Here we’ll take a look at the scope of the problem. We’ll explore some of the government and non-profit efforts that address the issue, and we’ll look at steps schools and teachers can take to ensure that hunger does not become a distraction in the classroom.

Food Insecurity

The problem runs wide and deep. The advocacy group No Kid Hungry reports that more than 12 million children in the United States live in “food insecure” homes, never sure where their next meal is coming from. One in six U.S. children lives with hunger. Some 22 million U.S. children rely on the free or reduced-price lunch they receive at school, while being eligible for free breakfast as well. Yet some 3 million children aren’t getting the breakfast they need.

The picture looks much the same in Canada. The advocacy group Breakfast Club of Canada serves about 33 million breakfasts a year in almost 1,600 schools nationwide, in an effort to close the hunger gap for some 200,000 students.

“All children of all income levels are often hungry at school. It is a universal problem,” says Debbie Field, coordinator of the Coalition for Healthy School Food, a Montreal-based project of the nonprofit Food Secure Canada. “You can’t spend a whole day learning if you haven’t eaten good food.”

Research points to a range of negative impacts that derive from classroom hunger. “Hungry children have lower math scores. They are also more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss it entirely,” the National Education Association reports. Hunger drives poor attendance, lateness, inattention, and behavioural problems.

As a physical education teacher in the Westbury, NY school district, Jaclyn Beraud sees it every day. Most of the kids in this largely low-income school qualify for free lunch, but the problem of hunger persists.

“As a teacher and a coach, it’s easy to see which kids are struggling,” she says. “They come to school not having eaten. They are sleeping in the middle of the day. My athletes get worn out at practice. And a lot of them are honest about it. They will say: I haven’t eaten today.”

Governments at the national, state, and provincial levels have recognized the problem and put programs in place, but those programs have proven insufficient, often failing to get to the heart of the problem.

Government Efforts

The United States Department of Agriculture oversees federal programs that reimburse schools for the expense of providing free and reduced-priced meals.

In Canada, there is no federal program, but the various provinces have their own support systems that aim to make either breakfast or lunch readily accessible. Students in Newfoundland and Labrador all receive breakfast, Field shares; while about half of Ontario kids only get a midmorning snack; and students in Quebec and British Columbia have access to lunch programs.

With all these forms of support in place, a reasonable person might wonder why so many kids are hungry in school. The answers are complex.

“First, there is the money,” says Judith Barry, co-founder of Breakfast Club of Canada. Government subsidies may help pay for food, but that only scratches the surface. “You need to cover the food, but you also have equipment needs, and then there is all the daily supervision and all the work just to organize and operate and sustain the program. That requires manpower, it requires effort and coordination. It doesn’t just happen.”

In some cases, administrative hurdles get in the way. “The administration might not have all the information they need to navigate these programs. They may need technical assistance to put these things in place,” says Kelley McDonough, senior manager for No Kid Hungry’s Center for Best Practices.

Logistics also comes into play. When schools serve breakfast in the cafeteria, kids may not have time to grab what they need before class starts. “Students may get to school late in the morning, either because a bus is late or a caregiver is getting off work. Or maybe the cafeteria is not convenient for students, or there is not enough seating for students,” McDonough says.

Despite the hurdles, schools that take a proactive approach, and that work in close cooperation with supportive non-profits, can move the needle on hunger.

Julie Pittman has taught for over 15 years in Rutherford County, NC, where 74 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Six years ago, the district started offering free breakfast and lunch to all students.

“Before that, I was teaching in my fourth period class—after lunch—and I happened to look into a student’s backpack. I saw a half-eaten hamburger and an open carton of milk,” says Pittman, who is presently on loan as an educational consultant to the nonprofit Share Our Strength. “I knew this kid’s background and [that] he was probably taking [the] food home either to eat as a meal later or to bring to a younger sibling.”

It wasn’t just the one kid. “I was having a hard time getting my students to focus,” she says. “When these kids are hungry, they are not able to actualize their full potential in the classroom. My job as a teacher is to grow these students into productive human beings and I cannot do that if they are hungry.”

Things changed when the free meals started. “Once our kids were no longer scavenging for food, when they could come to school and eat a healthy breakfast and a healthy lunch, we as teachers were able to feed our students intellectually and emotionally,” Pittman says.

Let’s take a look at some winning strategies.

Streamlining the System

In Broward County, FL, school officials are looking to drive wider student participation in school meals.

The county offers free breakfast to all kids. For those whose income qualifies them for a free or reduced-priced lunch, the district is leveraging technology to ensure easy access. Students or parents can apply confidentially using MySchoolApps.com, which eases the administrative burden on both the school district and the families.

There is also a big push to raise awareness. “We have intensive marketing to make sure [that] everyone knows to apply,” says Zoe Crego, Food and Nutrition Services Assistant Program Manager and registered dietitian. “We have billboards. We have a mobile unit [that] goes around staffed with people who can help you apply, because we know that not everyone has access to a computer. You can also apply through your smartphone, which we did in order to make it as accessible as possible to everyone.”

In Ohio, the statewide nonprofit Children’s Hunger Alliance (CHA) works with schools to help provide meals to some of the state’s 529,000 children who live in food-insecure households. That means, among other things, streamlining the breakfast service.

“When schools start a breakfast program, it is typically a traditional serving line. That means kids are in line to eat and the bell rings and so they have to go to class,” says CHA President and CEO Judy Mobley.

“With just a little bit of funding, we can help them open a second serving line. We can help them set up a grab-and-go station in the hall, or we can put in a vending machine where kids can grab a meal if they are running late,” she says.

“Our gold standard is breakfast in the classroom,” she explains. “When they have breakfast in the classroom, when all kids get the same meal at the same time, then the stigma of being a needy kid is completely gone. The kids who finish eating can start a worksheet, and their day starts much calmer. If the kids clean up after themselves, then they are also learning some responsibility.”

This push to reorganize breakfast service is a hot topic among child-hunger advocates. They say that simply changing where and how breakfast is served can give schools a low-cost way to dramatically increase participation in meal programs.

The non-profit community can also lend expertise to schools looking to up their game. “Some schools are very interested in making sure that all their kids get to eat, but they may lack the manpower or they may just have so many other priorities on their list,” Mobley says. “We have experts who work with schools. We can evaluate the program and make suggestions about how to reach more kids.”

Educators themselves can play a role. “Teachers are a critical part of this,” Kelley McDonough says. “They can be supportive of these innovative models, things like ‘breakfast after the bell.’ They can ask questions to ensure they understand the school meals that are offered. They can also be incredible advocates in their schools, their districts and their communities.”

Some teachers take a direct approach, simply keeping snacks in their desks. A survey by the organization No Kid Hungry, found the average teacher spends about $300 a year on food for kids. McDonough however, urges a more formal effort. She encourages teachers to find partners in the school wellness committee or school health advisory committee. “Teachers who want to have an active role can find a group like that and join in those discussions, in addition to seeking out their own training or professional development opportunities,” she says.

In Canada, some are looking to the federal government to step up. Debbie Field notes that in the federal budget that was approved in March 2019, the government committed to work with the provinces on the creation of a national food program.

“We have changed the conversation. Politicians finally see that the health crisis will consume all of the budget if we don’t educate children when they are young and if we don’t provide them with healthy food when they are in school,” she says. “Now we need to make sure that the 2020 budget actually has money in it, in support of this.”

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years’ experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. 

Originally published in TEACH Magazine, September/October 2019