by Marit Vike
Every educator dreams of a classroom and school where all students are in rapt attention. Sadly, this is not possible when students come to school hungry and cannot manage to muster the focus needed to learn. The need for food can be all consuming, and “it’s like the pain of the hunger is like eating at you. You’re mostly thinking about food because all you want to do is eat, get rid of the hunger feeling. You can’t really do your work,” says Mario, a 13-year-old student. Educators see many students like Mario, according to a new report.
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No Kid Hungry’s report, titled “Hunger in Our Schools,” provides a look at the daily hardship some students face because of hunger. Food insecurity creeps into the lives a majority of families, with 59 percent of parents admitting that their families’ food supply would run out and they could not afford to buy any more. Many parents and children live in constant fear of what happens when that food runs out.
Currently, one in every six kids is facing hunger. Students across the country, in every community, are facing this hardship and carrying it into the classroom with them. And educators can tell.
Many educators have to watch as they see the toll on their students.
- 80 percent of teachers see those students not concentrating
- 76 percent see them drop-off in academic performance
- 62 percent see behavioral problems develop.
Educators, often of the last line of defense for students, can’t help but get involved. In fact, 57 percent of teachers regularly buy food for students who come to school hungry. Compassion and concern for their students has always pushed educators to do more than required or even expected for their students.
“For some of our kids, Monday is a rough day, not knowing how much food they had that weekend. But it’s never the child’s fault that they’re hungry,” Joslyn Waldron, a Fairfax, VA, elementary school social worker told No Kid Hungry.
Sixteen-year-old Don puts into sharp focus what it’s like to be hungry while at school. “My focus is different when I’m hungry. Of course I’m gonna be thinking about food. I’m gonna be thinking about which one of my classmates got food. I’m gonna be thinking about which one of them might share their food.”
While educators regularly step up to help hungry children, some lawmakers have also taken notice and decided to step in to right a consequence of not being able to afford food at school: lunch shaming. Currently, there are state policies that force school cafeteria staff to throw out a student’s lunch or give them a weak alternative such as a cheese sandwich when a child has meal debt rather than extending credit for meals.
“It is completely absurd that students would be shamed at school based on their inability to purchase food,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, a sponsor of a bipartisan bill, the Anti-Lunch Shaming Act, to prevent lunch shaming. “I am confident that this legislation will do its part to stop students suffering from humiliation for circumstances outside of their control. This is bullying and I am saddened that we have to write legislation to ensure it ends.”
The Anti-Lunch Shaming Act prohibits shaming tactics by requiring schools to direct communications regarding meal debt to the parent, not the child. The bill also aims to make the process for applying for free and reduced price lunch applications simpler by expressing that it is the sense of Congress that schools should provide these applications more effectively to the families who need them, coordinate with other programs to ensure that homeless and foster children are enrolled for free meals, and set up online systems to make paying for meals easier for parents when possible.
Lack of reliable access to nutritious food is not limited to K-12 schools. Food insecurity – the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food – is common at colleges and universities across the country, concludes a report last year from the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. Among the report’s findings:
- 48 percent of survey respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, including 22 percent with very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.
- Food insecurity occurs at both two-year and four-year institutions. Twenty-five percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security, compared to 20 percent at four-year schools.
- Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color. Fully 57 percent of Black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students.
- More than half of all first-generation students (56 percent) were food insecure, compared to 45 percent of students who had at least one parent who attended college.