How teachers can help students from food-insecure families
Tips for School & District Administrators

Food Insecurity in Schools: How Can Teachers and Administrators Cope?

By Monica Fuglei


How teachers can help students from food-insecure familiesAccording to the No Kid Hungry website, one out of every five American children comes from a home where parents struggle to put food on the table. This significant population — nearly 16 million students — can be difficult to educate because they lack the basic necessity of food.

Simply skipping breakfast can lead to higher rates of depression, anxiety, or irritability, while those who do eat in the morning score better on tests and think faster and more clearly. Because it has an observable effect on student performance, food insecurity is an issue for educators.

Food insecurity and academic performance

A Hunger in Our Schools report posted on the No Kid Hungry website puts it simply: A child who is hungry will likely not function at their best in the school environment. The child will be sick more often and will be less likely to graduate high school, thus endangering their future education and earning capacity. This lack of education results in a failure to break out of a poverty cycle.

The organization interviewed high school Principal Sean McElhaney about a time he realized why one of his students couldn’t perform well on tests.

Hungry students in the classroom

A poll of more than a thousand educators showed that 78 percent of them dealt with food insecurity in their classrooms. Many of these teachers report dipping into their own pockets at the rate of about $26 a month to provide snacks for their hungry students.

In response to this level of need, some politicians are seeking to expand school lunch program funding to support year-round breakfast and lunch programs for the highest-risk students. In March, U.S. Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada  proposed a five-year pilot program in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that would allow some reduced/free lunch program recipients in the most food insecure homes to receive meals on weekends and school holidays in hopes that being away from school wouldn’t mean being away from food. The bill was referred to a subcommittee.

Breaking the cycle of food insecurity

Organizations such as No Kid Hungry are working to break the cycle of food insecurity. Starting from the fundamental belief that childhood hunger is a conquerable problem, No Kid Hungry has three primary goals:

  • Provide access to programs and partnerships for food insecure families
  • Educate food insecure families about healthy menu choices that can fit strict budgets
  • Increase awareness of childhood hunger across the United States

How to help hungry students

One way that educators and administrators can help children from food insecure families is to meet No Kid Hungry’s first goal and ensure that those families have access to information on the Free/Reduced Student Lunch Program, as well as local resources that might benefit them. Encouraging families to fill out the program forms and providing a list of local food charities is a worthy first step.

Information on events and charities involved in the No Kid Hungry campaign can be found on the Take Action page and can engage not only food insecure families, but also involve families interested in volunteering in their communities.

School and food bank partnerships

In some districts, schools partner with local food banks to create a food bank backpack campaign meant to send food home to food insecure families to help with their non-school-day needs. Feeding America’s Kid Café brings nutrition to families in need. Through their backpack campaign, they work with nearly 150 food banks to create packs with a weekend’s worth of easy to prepare foods so that children can arrive to school on Monday ready to learn.

Kids Café also has a school pantry program that gives food assistance to at-risk families from inside their home schools.  This provides a discrete and accessible food pantry option for families who might not otherwise have access to provision programs elsewhere.

Feeding America and No Kid Hungry are two of many organizations committed to combating child hunger and preparing students to learn. The best thing educators and administrators can do is to develop relationships with these or similar programs to help in the worthy goals of access, education, and awareness.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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