Are schools becoming the “last frontier” for hungry kids?
Category: The Big Picture

Are schools becoming the “last frontier” for hungry kids?

In anger, a student knocks over a chair, then tells his teacher he didn’t have dinner last night because his mom was working late. Another student begs her teacher not to tell anyone that she snuck an extra lunch from the cafeteria staff. Yet another shares that he has a secret food tree: a place where he and his brother hide extra food that they’ve saved for times when food in their house runs out.

Susan Thomas, a second grade teacher at Ithaca’s Beverly J. Martin Elementary school, shared these stories — her firsthand experiences with students experiencing hunger — last winter at a networking session on hunger hosted by GreenStar Community Projects. Dozens of people involved in hunger relief, experiencing hunger, or interested in solving food insecurity were in attendance.

“We know the families that are food insecure,” she says. “Children often casually talk to us about home meals….or lack thereof. Hungry kids are grumpy and have short fuses. They are tired and low energy. This can manifest in behaviors that range from spacey to hyper, droopy to aggressive.”

“Most of my children eat breakfast with us at school,” explains Susan, who sometimes makes oatmeal for kids in her classroom who arrive late and has bought CSA shares for families in need. “We are fortunate to have a strong school food program and a very flexible cafe manager who makes healthy breakfasts happen for several hours in the morning. We provide snacks and do the best we can to be sure everyone is fed. When students arrive in our classroom we check in: homework folder? breakfast? Young kids may forget to eat, or not even realize they are hungry. We work with them to identify feelings of hunger. We help them to understand that eating healthy food really gives us energy…the body and brain power it needs. Food helps us feel comfortable and happy, not ‘hangry.'”

Susan and her colleagues do their best to identify families who are food insecure and let them know about community resources: school food, food pantries, backpack programs, low cost/subsidized CSA shares. Susan’s teaching assistant is the pantry director at Southside Community Center, and he makes special deliveries and reaches out to families.

How can parents send their kids to school hungry? Are parents just uncaring and “checked out”? Susan says that’s not the case. “This is poverty, the low income reality.”

She continues, “The time we spend maintaining nutrition and calories is time that we are not teaching. Think of this in terms of equity. In a school where the income levels are higher and there is food security, kids hit the ground running. Teaching starts right away.”

That’s not necessarily the case at BJM. In the City of Ithaca, about 28% of students participate in the free or reduced price lunch program. In Newfield, 34% do. Groton and Dryden also have high rates of participation at 23% and 24%, respectively. And, Tompkins County is not alone in this struggle. School districts around the country are facing similar challenges.

“We spend a half hour each morning supporting breakfast… more if kids come in late, which happens a lot. If kids are not receiving proper nutrition through the day, they can’t learn as well. Period. When teachers are committing to food support, emotional support, the academics have to come second.  See the spiral of inequity?”


Image credit: “Lunch costing thirty cents in the school cafeteria at the Oneida School.” Photo by Philip Bonn, 1943. Library of Congress.

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