As a former middle school teacher, I had students who would come to school hungry. I am certain because, while students were silently doing classwork, on occasion, I could hear the sounds of growling stomachs. The entire class heard the sounds. Actually, it was more like ‘howling’ that echoed throughout the classroom, disrupting the ‘early morning calm’. There was an established pattern-an expected occurrence. Those loud bodily signs of hunger came from the students who were too late for breakfast. Always!
The students who arrived late for the school’s breakfast in the cafeteria, whatever the reason for their tardiness, missed the opportunity to eat a nutritious meal to help start their day off strong. Looking back, it must have been food insecurity or hunger that contributed to many of the disruptive behaviors students exhibited in my classroom, also. How often do educators consider hunger as a cause for some of students’ acting out behaviors, fidgeting or napping in class?
Behavior must not be limited to willful disobedience and maladaptive coping, or learning deficiencies either. Some students may be hungry! Neither brain nor body can perform at optimal levels on empty stomachs.
A 2013 study found that children who have regular access to breakfast score 17.5 percent higher on standardized math tests. Breakfast and lunch programs in schools are attacking childhood hunger, but a huge gap remains. According to No Kid Hungry, a quarter of all low-income parents worry their kids don’t have enough to eat between school lunch and breakfast the next day; and three out of four public school teachers say students regularly come to school hungry.
Food insecurity has an indisputably negative impact on learning in school, and too many children not only arrive at school hungry, but often go to bed at night hungry as well. It is an unfortunate reality for children and families living right here in the United States. Hunger and food insecurity is a concept that conjures up images of babies and children who live in ‘third world’ countries. The reality is that hunger exists in America, too.
Food insecurity exists in a family that has enough money to buy groceries three out of four weeks. So, sometimes it’s skipping dinner; it’s having to choose between buying groceries and paying rent. It is going to sleep with growling stomachs-loud enough to drown out ‘normal’ room sounds. It is a child, unable to concentrate in class or focus on learning, who is also rendered unable to learn at his/her best level of engagement.
Food can be characterized as a basic school supply, and as important as are textbooks and pencils. Children who go to school hungry often fall behind academically, are more likely to miss school because of illness, more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop behavioral problems as adolescents. They are more prone to drop out before graduation, which leads to lower paying jobs and a greater probability of being food insecure adults.
Schools are perfectly suited to lead in the fight against childhood ,and even adult, hunger, because among other factors, they represent anchors in the community. Schools have an incredible reach into the daily lives, health and wellness of children and families, and accessibility is a no-brainer. Currently, 22 million students across the country rely on reduced-price or free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program (funded by the USDA). More than half that number relies on free or reduced-price breakfasts, and only about 56% of children in need are being served by these programs.
Breakfast in school is usually served before the start of the day, and that can be challenging for many eligible children. Those who arrive late to school are left out of this important start of their day of learning. It is being proposed that breakfast becomes incorporated into the school day in order to increase access for hungry children, who can feel stigmatized by accessing breakfast before school, or unable to arrive early enough for breakfast.
To include breakfast as a part of the school day, to normalize it, is being proactive with a whole-child approach to learning and wellness. It is student-centered and culturally-responsive by making breakfast a universally free meal for all learners. When we feed both the brain and the body, we can expect student academic performance to be positively impacted and improved. We can expect that behavioral problems will decrease with nutritious meals provided in school. We are preventing many avoidable childhood illnesses, supporting less absenteeism, and we are mindful in preparing students to excel in school as we nourish the brain and body. Children could have one less distraction and fewer barriers to achievement if we address food insecurity and their empty stomachs in school.
We are filling in the blanks for families unable to provide food and nutrition due to compromised financial restraints. We ask children to fully engage in learning activities and perform at their very best, and providing the fuel that helps power their brains will enable them to do so. We are investing in the future.
Children today will be the leaders, workers, doctors, scientists, engineers, and will be the guiding forces of change and innovation in the future. Do we want average achievers when we can help facilitate above-average to exceptional achievers? Food insecurity is real and we can be parts of the solutions to end childhood hunger for so many young developing minds. For all of the investment gurus out there, invest in the future of humanity, and make a solid investment into children and their families. The ROI will absolutely astound us, as we all will reap benefits for generations to come! End childhood hunger and food insecurity; food is a BASIC survival need for everyone!