Half of Teachers Report Hunger Is a Serious Problem in Their Classrooms

A new study comes with some new solutions.
Teachers spend an average of $30 a month buying food for hungry students. Principals spend about $60. (Photo: Kidstock/Getty)
Aug 27, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Teachers spend $37 a month of their own money buying food for hungry students.

That’s $300 a school year or roughly five tanks of gas.

Child hunger is a serious problem that negatively affected my students’ self-esteem, ability to learn, and behavior,” Princess Moss, an elementary school teacher from Virginia and National Education Association Executive Committee member, says. “I would always keep snacks in my class for students that were hungry and who were having trouble concentrating during instructional time.”

It turns out the only meal he ate every day was his free lunch at school. His family couldn’t afford breakfast or dinner.A new report, “Hunger In Our Schools: Teachers Report 2013,” by Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign was released on Tuesday showing an “on-the-ground view of hunger” from 1,200 teachers and principals of kindergarten through eighth grade.

And the picture isn’t pretty.

Half of teachers surveyed reported that hunger is a serious problem in their classrooms. Another 73 percent said they see students who regularly come to school hungry because there isn’t enough food at home. Eighty-seven percent of principals said that every week they see hungry students and many spend about $60 a month on food for them, even more than the teachers.

“Childhood hunger is a problem that is in every state,” Josh Wach, chief strategy officer for Share Our Strength, says. “It manifests itself in every classroom, playground, and backyard. It’s a problem that isn’t as visible to the naked eye as other social problems are, but it has a huge effect on our country’s ability to thrive.”

Wach said that 17.5 percent of students perform better on standardized math scores when they eat breakfast. Twenty percent are more likely to graduate high school.

In the survey, one teacher in Florida said, “One of my students had a horrible time focusing in class. I began to think that he just didn’t care, so I pulled him aside and asked what was going on. He began to cry and told me that he couldn’t help it; he was just so hungry. It turns out the only meal he ate every day was his free lunch at school. His family couldn’t afford breakfast or dinner.”

In Washington, D.C., Wach said, some teachers reported that students focus only on Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s because on Monday they have gone all weekend without much food. By Thursday, they were becoming anxious again about a weekend of hunger.

There’s one easy way to solve this problem—feed kids breakfast. According to the survey, nine in 10 educators said breakfast was the “key to turning the tides on hunger and achievement.”

Statistics show that less than half of students (21 million) who receive a free school lunch eat a free breakfast. That gap, Wach said, must be closed. Of these students, those who are offered free breakfast may deny it because of the isolation and self-consciousness they feel receiving a free breakfast in the cafeteria when many of their peers do not.

That’s why there is a movement to reimagine breakfast. Instead of eating in a cafeteria, breakfast should move to the classroom and connect kids to healthy meals and social inclusion.

Some schools have already adopted this model, and change is happening. Educators report that 76 percent of students were more alert, and 57 percent had better attendance. Disciplinary issues dropped and students had fewer visits to the school nurse. Since 2011, these schools have seen an increase of 28 million school breakfasts served.

“Childhood hunger doesn’t exist because we don’t have enough food,” Wach said. “Rather kids aren’t getting access to food. Everybody can play a role, a corporation, individuals, and state and local government in helping break down the barrier to get kids the resources they need to grow and thrive.”

Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign is creating the first-ever map to document how breakfast is served in U.S. schools. Volunteers call up a school, ask a few questions about breakfast and add the information to an online database.

“Part of the problem is many folks are not aware that this is such a huge issue and that one in five students struggle with hunger,” Wach said. “But everyone can do something in their community to eradicate child hunger.”