The Hidden Crisis in America’s Classrooms

Experts say solutions must extend beyond simply serving healthier lunches.
Rosie, a fifth-grader in Collburn, CO, who is featured in the film ‘A Place at the Table,’ says she struggles to concentrate at school because of her hunger. (Photo: Clip, A Place At The Table)
Mar 12, 2013· 4 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

With her mind wandering, Rosie sits in her fifth-grade class. Whenever she’s struggling to pay attention, bright-eyed Rosie glances down at a word her teacher, Leslie Nichols, had her write on a card that sits on her desk: focus.

“She just wasn’t applying herself in the classroom, and I couldn’t figure out where that attitude was coming from,” says Nichols, a teacher in Collburn, CO, in the new film A Place at the Table. “What I realized when I brought her in one day is that the main issue was that she was hungry.”

Rosie says that even when she remembers to look at Ms. Nichols, all she can think about is food.

“Sometimes when I look at her, I envision her as a banana,” she says in the film, “and everybody in the class is apples and oranges.”

RELATED: Complete Coverage of America's Hidden Hunger Crisis

A “normal” fifth grader by all appearances, Rosie would blend in at a mall or on the playground with her friends. But Rosie is one of more than 16 million American children who don’t always have enough to eat. Consequently, schools—where children like Rosie spend the majority of their waking hours during the week—have become the front lines in a battle not only for the minds of America’s children, but also for their physical and mental health.

The root cause of children coming to school hungry is, of course, poverty. The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that nearly 16 million children in the United States—22 percent of all children—live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level, which is $23,021 a year for a family of four. But that figure doesn’t tell the whole story. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, the number of children living in low-income families increases to a staggering 45 percent.

45 percent.

That’s nine five-year-olds in a kindergarten classroom of 20 who are growing up in families struggling to make ends meet. Many, if not most, of these children are not getting enough good food to eat.

Americans agree that a hungry child anywhere—not just the United States—is simply unacceptable, but disagree on how to address it. President Barack Obama has set a goal, for instance, of eliminating childhood hunger by 2015. Some advocate for solutions primarily stemming from private charity and philanthropic businesses. Others agree that charity and local help for hungry people is crucial, but that state and federal policies are also crucial—including fully funding the nutritional safety nets of WIC and SNAP and raising the minimum wage.

But while adults argue the politics of hunger in America, families actually live it every day—and like their folders and pencils, children carry it with them to school.

School-Based Solutions

Dr. John Cook, a research scientist and principal investigator at Children’s HealthWatch and Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, is an expert on the effects of food insecurity on children. He says that for a five-year-old who has struggled nutritionally in his or her early years and begins school, hunger’s effect starts as developmental delays and results in “the erosion of a child’s performance in school.”

“They will arrive at school with some difficulties relating socially, and with some difficulties learning,” Cook says. “They come into the classroom and are a little bit behind their peers, they struggle to catch up and stay up.”

Given that some children will consume 60 percent of their daily calories at school, almost everybody agrees that improving school lunches is vital—and much work has been done on that front. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 —which, among other reforms, added more vegetables and fruit to school meals and set limits on the amount of meats and grains—took effect across America last July, and preliminary reports suggest kids are in fact eating healthier at school.

Many schools, however, are hampered by factors like the price disparity between fresh and processed foods, a lack of culinary equipment and trained staff, and an unfamiliarity among students with healthier dishes.

The Chefs in Schools initiative—run by Project Bread, which addresses hunger in Massachusetts—is attempting to address these challenges. In the program, chefs train food-service staff in low-income districts to prepare delicious, healthy meals amid a tight budget. An independent analysis of the program determined that students are both eating more and throwing away less food in schools where there is a chef, says Scott Richardson, director of strategic initiatives for Project Bread.

But beyond lunches, for a growing number of school-age children who would otherwise be hungry until lunchtime, a school-provided breakfast starts the day off right. Richardson, acknowledging the difficulty some kids have in getting to school in time for breakfast and the tension with time spent on learning, says Project Bread still advocates that schools incorporate breakfast into the school day, “after the bell.”

“It’s kind of a no-brainer from an academic standpoint because hungry kids don’t learn well,” Richardson says. “Our experience is that kids that get breakfast in the classroom do well academically, and anecdotal evidence suggests that kids that get breakfast are also better behaved.”

Stepping back, though, Richardson says, is a more holistic approach to addressing nutrition issues in schools.

The Farm-to-School movement puts fresh, local produce on school lunch tables and also includes a food-education component, which Richardson says has been shown to increase healthy food consumption. He also applauds the work done by Cooking Matters, an out-of-school program that teaches kids and their parents kitchen basics and gives families tools to prepare healthy meals for less money. But he says the real value of programs like Cooking Matters is in teaching parents how to model healthy eating habits for their children.

“We as a society really need to be thinking about modeling appropriate adult eating behavior,” Richardson says. “We can’t just throw food in front of kids and expect them to eat it.”

Hungry at School, Hungry at Home

Teachers in at-risk communities report that Mondays and Fridays are the hardest days for discipline. On Mondays, many children return to school from a tough weekend, some having not eaten much, and can act out or be unfocused. And for kids whose greatest stability occurs at school, Friday is a reminder of what they’re going back into.

In some schools, food-insecure students are being sent home with backpacks full of groceries for their families to eat over the weekend.

It’s a reminder, some say, that in addition to local, school-based programs— while effective in the short-term, perhaps—the issue of childhood hunger demands large-scale, holistic solutions. In our school feeding, SNAP, and WIC programs, Cook says we have an “unbelievably effective system of social infrastructure” to deal with hunger—when they are funded. Currently, a Republican-led proposal to slash SNAP—which enrolled an all-time high 47 million Americans in 2012—is being tossed around as a budget-cutting measure.

“Those programs work, they absolutely work, and they do what they were designed to do,” he says. “If we view them as handouts to ‘those people’ and we act as thought that’s taking something away from the rest of us and decide not to fund them, they don’t work. We have the programs we need to address these problems; we just don’t utilize them effectively.”

Richardson adds that at the end of the day, “a sandwich stops hunger, but it doesn’t end hunger. Only a job can do that.” Maybe so, but in the meantime, Rosie and 16 million other children are more than happy to have that sandwich.

Learn more about hunger at school:

• Fighting Hunger in Schools, One Backpack at a Time

• Andrew Youn: Farming a Solution to Extreme Hunger

• Can Elmo and the Gang Make a Dent in Childhood Hunger?