A quality education is central to a child’s well being. When a child shows up every day ready to learn, they can stay alert and participate in class. They can run with their friends on the playground, practice their reading skills, and create inspired science projects. But what happens when something stands in the way of their education?
For too many children, hunger is that ever-present barrier.
When a child shows up to school hungry, they may be unable to focus on class materials. And once they get through the day, they may return home without knowing where their next meal will come from. According to We Are Teachers, three out of four educators have students who regularly arrive at school hungry. This lack of food can be all consuming for the child and their family, affecting academic success overall.
This national crisis needs a national solution. With the right knowledge and a concrete plan for action, we can all have a role in combatting the national hunger crisis.
Hunger’s Impact On School Performance
As humans, we know that all other aspects of life suffer when our basic needs are not being met. We also know that a hungry child at school experiences more than just a grumbling tummy. Children who are living with food insecurity during the first five years of their lives are more likely to lag behind in social, emotional, and cognitive development once they start kindergarten. This sets children up for a challenging start to their education.
Once they advance in school, the challenges continue. Being hungry impairs focus and other cognitive abilities that are key to learning and test taking. According to a report by Feeding America®, children who are hungry are more likely to have lower math scores and repeat a grade in elementary school. Developmentally, they are more likely to experience language and motor skill impairments, as well as having more social and behavioral problems. And down the line, children living with hunger are more likely to be less prepared for the workforce as adults.
“I think there is good research that shows that nutrition is critical for a child's brain and for concentration and learning at school,” Dr. Tanya Atlmann of the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement to CNN. “So whether breakfast is provided at home or at school, as a pediatrician, I do see a difference in kids that get good nutrition in the morning, such as protein, fresh fruit and enough calories, and how they function during the day at school.”
She added that children are not able to cope with such distractions as well as adults.
"While adults may be able to focus and concentrate better with poorer nutrition, with kids, they cannot necessarily control that, and they might be more distracted and less able to sit and learn if their basic needs such as sleep and nutrition aren't getting met."
These setbacks caused by hunger give some children a disadvantage as they try to excel in school. In fact, We Are Teachers states that according to data from 2015, about 93% of educators said that they are concerned about the long-term effects that hunger may have on their student’s education. And these teachers are taking personal initiative to provide food for their hungry students. We Are Teachers found in this data that 59% of teachers regularly buy food for their students who are not getting enough food at home, which adds up to about $300 per year.
And this is something that we should be listening to.
“What do parents tell their kids on the first day of school – stay out of trouble, do your homework, and listen to your teachers,” Share Our Strength President Tom Nelson said at a recent panel discussion, according to neaToday. “That’s our message today: listen to your teachers. What are they telling us? Hunger needs to be a national priority.”
Why Does Hunger Happen?
As with other issues of poverty and inequality, hunger is a complicated issue. So, to understand the depth of hunger in the United States, it’s important to also understand the concept of “food insecurity.” This term was coined in 2006 by the United States Department of Agriculture. These terms rate residents on a scale based on their food security or insecurity. When it comes to hunger, the following terms apply:
- Low Food Security: “reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.”
- Very Low Food Security: “Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.”
Food insecurity is not a hidden problem. There are very likely food insecure families right in your community who are making sacrifices every day to ensure that their children are fed.
“There are food insecure and hungry kids in every Congressional district and every demographic,” Lucy Melcher, the director of advocacy and government relations for the nonprofit Share Our Strength said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Food insecurity is a family that has enough money to buy groceries three out of four weeks; it’s a mom skipping dinner; it’s having to choose between buying groceries and paying rent.”
Food insecurity stems largely from poverty. And it’s important to note that not every demographic is affected equally. According to DoSomething, while one in five children is at risk for hunger nationally, this risk is one in three for African-Americans and Latinos. Food insecurity is also higher than the national average (14.6%) in Arkansas (21.2%), Mississippi (21.1%), Texas (18.0%), Tennessee (17.4%), North Carolina (17.3%), Missouri (16.9%), Georgia (16.6%), Ohio (16.0%).
This issue is also bolstered by the prevalence of food deserts, or areas of the country that are largely void of fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods. People living in food deserts, which are usually also impoverished areas, lack access to grocery stores, farmers markets, and other healthy food providers, according to the USDA.
People who live in these areas without access to healthy food often do not have cars. So, even if the closest grocery store is only a few miles away, they won’t be able to get there easily. This means that adults are purchasing unhealthy options from convenience stores, gas stations, and fast food restaurants -- or are not buying enough food at all.
This is how young children are left without enough food to eat, and they arrive at school without the fuel they need to grow and learn.
What Can We Do About Hunger In Schools?
While childhood food insecurity may seem like a daunting problem to tackle, there are steps that individuals and organizations can take to fight this issue both nationally and locally. By knowing the depth of the problem and educating yourself on viable solutions, we can get one step closer to feeding every child that walks into their classroom each morning.
Advocate For Government Programs
Many low-income families around the country rely on government-funded food assistance programs to put food on the table every day. Perhaps the most well-known is Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. You may know this as Food Stamps. As of May 2017, there were about 41.5 million people enrolled in the program.
Another assistance program is Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. This program allocates federal grants to states for food and health care for women and young children in particular. They also provide educational resources to pregnant, breastfeeding, or non-breastfeeding postpartum, low-income women.
These programs are only as strong as the legislators who support them, so remember to use your voice and vote well. While these programs help millions of people get the nutrition they need and provide meals to their families, it is important to note that 20% of food-insecure children live in homes that earn too much to qualify for these assistance programs. This forces them to rely on charities and non-profits.
Support School-Based Programs
Quality school programing is key to providing students with healthy and dependable meals. One such program is the USDA-funded National School Lunch Program, which currently provides 22 million students with reduced-priced or free school lunches. Over half of the students in this program also rely on free or reduced-price breakfasts as well.
Many school districts and nonprofits also offer programs that give children in need breakfast and afterschool meals. Others take this assistance a step further by offering meals over the weekend and during school breaks. Local governments, like that in New York City, also implement summer meal programs, offering free breakfasts and lunches to any child 18-years-old and younger.
Altmann told CNN that these school nutrition programs are improving with time, providing more nutritionally complete meals to children.
"I think that school nutrition has improved dramatically over the past five years. The quality is so much better than what it was five and 10 years ago," she said. "For instance, there's more fresh fruits, more whole grains are used, less extra, unneeded sugar and calories."
Show Your Support Locally
With this said, you can also be a force for the children in your community by donating to food banks and school programs. You can also take the time to volunteer to collect food, serve food, and ask for donations. You can find your local food bank through Feeding America’s online database.
Parents can also help by sending their children to school with multiple snacks, so they can share with those who are unable to bring a snack from home. Remember that for children suffering from food insecurity, small acts of kindness can go a long way. This can create a ripple effect of kindness and support for the programs mentioned above.
As a citizen of the U.S. and your local community, your voice is powerful. By showing support for federal assistance programs, school-based programs, and your local relief efforts, you can have a part in reversing the reality of childhood hunger.
Childhood Hunger Is A Pressing Issue: It Is Time To Act
Now that you know the depth of childhood hunger in the U.S., the profound effects it has on learning, and what you can do about it, it’s time to ask yourself:
What will I do today to combat hunger in schools?
Whether it’s donating a few dollars to a local food relief program, volunteering at a food bank, or lobbying our congressional representatives to support federal assistance programs, no act is too small in changing the reality for millions of children around the country. Well-fed children are successful children, and by providing them with food, we can set them up for the best academic experience possible.
Healthy children are able to live a fulfilling life. And that is something every child deserves.