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May 2013 | Volume 70 | Number 8
Faces of Poverty
One-fifth of America's children struggle with hunger. But this is a battle we can win.
Childhood hunger is a crisis in the United States. The economic recession has shattered the financial stability of millions of hard-working Americans, leaving many who once had solid footing struggling to put food on the table.
For many families, economic hardship has become the new reality. Fuel and food prices are rising while wages remain low. The economy is slowly recovering, but disasters like Hurricane Sandy left many families on the financial edge, facing hunger for the first time. People who used to donate to food banks now receive donations from food banks.
Today, more than 46 million Americans—15 percent of the population—live below the poverty line of $23,050 for a family of four. Of those, 20.4 million live in "deep poverty" (income of less than $11,500 a year for a family of four). Poverty coupled with financial setbacks like unemployment, medical emergencies, or other crises means that more than 50 million people in this country struggle to afford enough nutritious food regularly throughout the year (Coleman-Jensen, Nord, Andrews, & Carlson, 2012; DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2012).
Children are especially hard hit: More than 16 million U.S. children—21.9 percent of the population—live in households struggling to put food on the table. That's one of every five kids. And more than 7 million children suffer deep poverty. More families today rely on food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) than in past years, and 47 percent of SNAP participants are children under 18 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012).
That's a lot of statistics, but the picture they paint is simple: One-fifth of U.S. children struggle with hunger. And the faces of those hungry children are familiar to most of us. They're kids we see living in our neighborhoods, playing on our Little League teams, and trying to learn in our classrooms.
Combating childhood hunger in the United States is a battle that can be won. We have enough food. We even have food and nutrition programs to make that food available to families who can't afford it. The trick is cutting through barriers to allow more kids to access these programs and raising awareness of hunger. Share Our Strength works to increase awareness of the spread of hunger throughout the United States—and of programs families can turn to. Many of those programs are based in schools, and there is much school leaders and teachers can do to connect hungry children with programs that provide food.
The stakes are high. When kids get the food they need, they feel better, perform better in school, and have fewer behavior problems.
Teachers are on the front lines in the war against childhood hunger. They spend hours with kids daily and are firsthand witnesses to children's lives.
And U.S. teachers are worried. Last year, Share Our Strength surveyed more than 1,000 K–8 public school teachers about hunger in their classrooms. Their answers were striking. Overwhelmingly, teachers across the United States—from urban, suburban, and rural districts—told us childhood hunger remains a serious obstacle to learning.
A majority of the teachers we surveyed see students coming to school hungry. More than half said "a lot" or "most" of their students relied on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. Three of five said they had students in their current classrooms who regularly came to school without getting enough to eat at home (Share Our Strength, 2012).
One teacher we talked to said, "I've had students come to school in the morning with the [school] lunch they ate the previous day having been their most recent meal." A Midwestern teacher noted, "The saddest are the children who cry when we get out early for a snow day because they won't get lunch" (Share Our Strength, 2012).
Kids with empty bellies find it hard to focus. They concentrate more on making it to lunch than on math or reading lessons. Test scores plummet (one reason schools feed kids a healthy breakfast on standardized test days). Hungry students can exhibit behavior problems; they may become irritable or rowdy or get lethargic. Some miss class to go to the school nurse, complaining of stomachaches and headaches.
One teacher explained her wake-up call:
I often see children in my classroom who seem sleepy and unfocused. I usually asked them, "What time did you go to bed last night?" One day, I realized many of these kids were hungry, not tired. Now I ask, "What time did you last eat something?"
These realities have far-reaching consequences. Hunger affects long-term health, academic achievement, and economic prosperity—leading to a less competitive American workforce and higher national health care costs.
The teachers whom Share Our Strength surveyed agreed that breakfast plays an especially crucial role in ensuring that students get a solid start to their days: Ninety percent said breakfast is very important to academic achievement. Ninety-five percent credited breakfast with increased concentration, 89 percent with better academic performance, and 73 percent with better classroom behavior. A majority (56 percent) said students who've eaten breakfast are less likely to be tardy or absent.
Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign recently teamed up with the Deloitte consulting firm to quantify the potential long-term effects associated with providing free or inexpensive school breakfasts to students who need them. Deloitte analyzed third-party studies and publicly available data to develop several frameworks connecting outcomes from the school breakfast program with long-term benefits. The 2013 Deloitte study, Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis, showed dramatic potential results associated with the simple act of feeding kids a healthy breakfast, including links to outcomes in education and future economic security.
Bottom line: The simple act of making sure students eat healthy food at the start of their days has potentially dramatic effects. For example, we found that students who eat a free breakfast at school, on average, achieve 17.5 percent higher scores on standardized math tests and attend 1.5 more days of school per year. Test scores and attendance records are, in turn, tied to graduation rates; students who attend class more regularly are 20 percent more likely to graduate from high school. And high school graduates earn $10,090 more per year than nongraduates and enjoy a higher employment rate (Deloitte & No Kid Hungry, 2013). Greater job readiness and self-sufficiency set these students on a path to being less likely to struggle with hunger as adults.
Unfortunately, millions of kids who'd benefit enormously from receiving breakfast at school miss out. Of the 20 million low-income U.S. kids who ate a free or reduced-price school lunch in 2012, only about half also ate breakfast in school (Food Research and Action Center, 2013).
There are many reasons kids who need school breakfast aren't getting it; the most common are stigma and timing. In many schools, breakfast is aimed primarily at students who are eligible for free- and reduced-price meals. Many kids are embarrassed at leaving their friends to sit in the cafeteria and eat with the "poor kids." And busy mornings at home or incompatible bus schedules mean some students miss out because they can't get to school early enough to eat breakfast before the morning bell.
The No Kid Hungry campaign has been helping communities overcome these barriers. One solution is to move school breakfast out of the cafeteria and make it part of the school day. Innovative breakfast models like Breakfast in the Classroom (which makes healthy breakfast items available to all students in classrooms at the beginning of homeroom or first period) and Grab 'n' Go breakfasts (easy-to-eat items students pick up to munch in class) go a long way toward increasing participation.
The state of Maryland has been increasing school breakfast participation by moving school breakfast into the classroom. Analysis shows that, in Maryland, schools serving breakfast in their classrooms experienced as much as a 7.2 percent lower rate of chronic absenteeism, and students in schools serving breakfast in their classrooms were 12.5 percent more likely to achieve proficiency on standardized math tests (Deloitte & No Kid Hungry, 2013).
In summer, children are at a higher risk of both obesity and hunger because it's harder for them to get nutritious, nonfattening foods (National Summer Learning Association, n.d.). For too many kids, summer means no school breakfast and no school lunch. For families already struggling to make ends meet, the summer months can be incredibly stressful as tight budgets strain even further to provide these meals.
The good news is that free summer meals, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are available to children at thousands of locations across the United States—in schools, recreation centers, churches, and other sites. These programs are administered by states and run by nonprofits. Besides breakfast, lunch, or dinner, most offer academic and recreational activities that keep kids' bodies and minds active.
The bad news is that many kids who need these meals aren't getting them. Of the more than 20 million U.S. children who rely on free or reduced-price lunch during the school year, only around 3 million receive a free meal in summer (Food Research and Action Center, 2012). Nearly 85 percent of the kids in the United States who may need nutritional assistance don't receive it for a fourth of the year. The problem is twofold. First, there's a shortage of sites—or ways of getting children to existing sites. Second, many parents, teachers and other community leaders don't realize the program exists.
Educators can play a role in making sure kids get access to healthy food in many ways. First, take the pledge to end childhood hunger in your community. Principals and teachers are also in a prime position to help more children get both free breakfast in school and free summertime meals.
Districts and schools that want to create an innovative breakfast campaign in their schools can learn how by using the tool kit. This kit discusses best practices for implementing breakfast in the classroom and offers tips for instructional activities that teachers can orchestrate while kids are eating their meal. There are also tools for engaging fellow teachers, school districts, custodial staff, food service employees, parents, and students in the process so that moving breakfast into the classroom is seamless and positive across the board.
Educators should encourage enrollment in local summer meals programs and ensure that parents know about these programs by distributing information at end-of-year events or by sending a fact sheet and list of local sites home with students. No Kid Hungry's best practices website provides resources; case studies of communities who've created summer meal offerings, including a step-by-step process; and materials to educate both parents and the local media on summer meal programs.
Classroom teachers can be invaluable voices in the local community advocating for nutrition education and programs. Writing a letter to the editor of the local paper or a state legislator in support of hunger-relief policies can have a huge effect on ensuring that policymakers support programs to help kids.
Making sure kids get enough healthy food isn't a handout: It's an investment in our future. Ensuring that children have the food they need to live, learn, and play is crucial if we want to build a healthy workforce. It will take the skills and determination of everyone with strength to share—including educators—to win this battle.
→ 46 million Americans—15 percent of the population—live below the poverty line.
→ 20.4 million Americans—including 7 million children—live in "deep poverty."
→ 16 million U.S. children—1 of every 5—live in families that struggle to put food on the table.
→ More than 20 million U.S. children rely on free or reduced-price lunch during the school year. Only 3 million of them get a free meal through federally funded programs in summer.
→ Nearly 85 percent of U.S. children who need nutritional assistance don't receive it in summer.
Worldwide, some 21,000 children die from hunger every day—one child every four seconds.
Source: UNICEF. Retrieved from www.globalissues.org/article/715/today-21000-children-died-around-the-world
Coleman-Jensen, A., Nord, M., Andrews, M., & Carlson, S. (2012). Household food security in the United States in 2011 (ERR-141). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from www.ers.usda.gov/media/884525/err141.pdf
Deloitte & No Kid Hungry Center for Best Practices. (2013). Ending childhood hunger: A social impact analysis. Washington, DC: Authors.
DeNavas-Walt, C., Proctor, B. D., & Smith, J. C. (2012). Income poverty and health insurance coverage in the United States: 2011 (U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, P60-243). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Food Research and Action Center. (2012). Hunger doesn't take a vacation: Summer nutrition status report 2012. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://frac.org/pdf/2012_summer_nutrition_report.pdf
Food Research and Action Center. (2013). School breakfast scorecard: School year 2011–2012. Washington, DC: Author.
National Summer Learning Association. (n.d.). Research in brief: Summertime and weight gain. Baltimore: Author.
Share Our Strength. (2012). Hunger in the classroom: Share Our Strength's teacher report 2012. Washington, DC: Author.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. (2012). Building a healthy America: A profile of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.fns.usda.gov/ora/MENU/published/snap/FILES/Other/BuildingHealthyAmerica.pdf
Christy Felling is director of PR at Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign.
Copyright © 2013 by ASCD
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