Since writing my article, “The One Reason I Quit Teaching,” many people had questions and requested additional information about the childhood hunger presentation referenced in the article. The presentation I developed was very specific to Clackamas County in Oregon, and was written five years ago. However, this is such an important and under-educated issue, here are my best recommendations and resources for dealing with childhood hunger in the classroom.
There are hungry children in every state, in every country. There are children without a stable food supply in almost every classroom and town around the world. It is sad and awful, and a first step in helping this issue is being able to identify the children in need.
Now, you need to find out what your school is dealing with in terms of children in need. This link takes you to Feeding America’s website, specifically the map in which you can find your county’s percentage of children living in households under the Federal poverty level. If your school is a Title 1 or 1A school, your Title staff will most likely also have this information. Another piece of useful information is knowledge of the Federal poverty level. Here is a link to that information, it’s shocking.
Children, and all humans, need food to fuel body processes. Our bodies optimally operate when we have consistent access to nutritionally dense food. Children in every state live in food insecurity, meaning that they have limited access to enough nutritious food to fuel their lives.
In the long term, lack of access to proper nutrition is devastating to the brain and body development, especially in children. They cannot grow and learn at a normal rate. Their development slows. In the short term, chronically hungry or under-nutritioned children suffer social and behavioral issues. These are hungry children, they cannot operate appropriately when they do not have enough fuel for their growing bodies.
Families at or around the poverty rate often have to make choices between paying household bills and buying food with high nutritional value. Areas with higher poverty rates have more children living with hunger. This occurs in every community, every single one.. Just because a house is big or someone drives a new car does not mean that they have enough food on the table for their children.
One of my families once submitted a scholarship application for an after school program, I looked at their income and was confused why they would need financial assistance. They lived in the wealthiest per-capita city in Oregon, had two working parents and made six figures. Their children were dropped off in a brand new Mercedes SUV every day. I called the mother and just asked for additional details so I could process her paperwork. It turns out that this family had literally millions of dollars of medical debt due to cancer and then a nasty car accident years before. They were barely making ends meet after paying the medical bills. A family member had bought them their Mercedes. After talking with the mother, I gave her contact information for a few other non-income based assistance programs. All kinds of families may need help at one time or another.
Oregon is where I taught for thirteen years, so that is what I will use for reference. When you go to the link above on Feeding America’s site, there will be years of information that you can select. The most recent year of data is 2013. The overall percentage of people living in food insecurity is 15.8% in Oregon. HOWEVER, click on the pull down for children, that rate for just children is 25.8%. And this is an improvement over the last time I collected this data a few years ago, good Lord.
Next, look at the percentage of people living in food insecurity that are not eligible for any Federal assistance, as they are making more than the maximum income. For Oregon, it is 31%. This means that of the children living without enough food, almost one-third of their families cannot get any assistance from income-based programs. Children are living without enough food and some of their families are very limited in the help they can receive.
The reason that all of this information is important is so we can accurately see how our children are coming to school. My county in Oregon has 20% of children living in food insecurity, so I automatically do the math for my class of 30… so about six of my kids arrive hungry to school.
Hunger in the classroom is often mishandled. It just is, it’s hard to recognize. Lethargy, testiness, lack of attention, anger, these are all ways that hunger manifests itself in students. Think of the students in your class and see if you recognize anyone; their morning transitions are difficult, they are not fully awake until lunch time, their head is down on their desk, they wear their bulky sweatshirt most of the morning, they are slow to line up, need extra explanations for directions and concepts. These are a few ways in which hungry children can act in the classroom. Of course, these behaviors could be symptoms of other disorders. However, if you look at the hunger piece first, perhaps these issues can be alleviated or at least improved.
The final step in helping hungry children is developing an action plan at your school. If your school is a Title 1/1A, there are probably programs already in place to help families in need. There is always room for improvement and addition of programs. If childhood hunger is an issue at your school, you will need help from other staff members and most likely the community at large. This begins with education, people need to know about the severity of the issue so they know how to focus their help. Work with your staff to figure out what programs you have in place, what is working well and what needs to be changed. The children are the most important, they are reason we are all here. Do what you can, then do a little more than you think you can. You are making a difference.The most important component in the success of ANY program is communication. Your staff needs to talk to each other, network to notice the little things, and be able to trust one another.
The following story is not related to food and hunger, but relays the importance of communication and trust among teachers and staff members. I was teaching fifth and sixth grade and had just finished taking roll. One of my boys came in late, looked disheveled and very rushed. Our schedule on that day did not allow for a lot of time together as a class before we switched for math class. This boy was in my math class, and I could just tell he was off. He couldn’t sit still, wouldn’t make eye contact. This is a normally very relaxed kiddo, who joked with me often. He didn’t really want me to help him, and was not very cooperative.
Then I saw it. His right eye was swollen and bruised. I quickly talked with one of the aides who worked with me a lot; I told her that something was off, he had an injury on his face, and that I just wanted her to work with him one-on-one for a bit. Working in small groups or one-on-one with other teachers and aides happens a lot in my math class, so this was nothing out of the ordinary as far as the other kids were concerned.
After math, the kids shuffled out to recess. I spoke with the aide, and she agreed that something was up with this kiddo. About ten minutes later, one of the recess aides came into my classroom and told me that my student, this same boy, was crying at recess. He never cries.
When the kids came back in, I had this boy help me with some project outside the classroom. I told him that I noticed he wasn’t quite himself and that he could tell me if he wanted help with anything. He was visibly upset but wouldn’t talk to me. I told him that the aide from earlier said he did a great job in math and I asked if he wanted to work with her again. He said that he did. I arranged with the principal to shift a couple of people around, told her my suspicion, and then this boy went to work with this aide again.
Fifteen minutes later, the aide signaled me to come to her office, which was right off of my classroom. I will spare all of the details, but this sweet boy had been abused by his mother’s boyfriend. We called the Police and Department of Human Services. A report was made, the parents were notified, the man was arrested (eventually jailed) and the family situation was resolved. His mother immediately kicked the boyfriend out of the house, they got into counseling as a family and the boy had a banner year of learning, growth and making new friends. There were so many people that contributed to helping this boy, this family, when they were at rock bottom.
The father came to see me later that week, he stood in my doorway, in very dirty clothes from his job. I came over from my desk, he had tears streaming down his face. He handed me a large, covered bowl. There weren’t words for what he wanted to say, so he made me guacamole. It might sound silly, but he didn’t have anything to give me and our school had helped his son stay safe. He made it with extra jalapenos because his son told him I love spicy food.
Communication and trust in one another is vitally important when helping children in need, any kind of need. We all have limited time, I completely understand that. Put ten extra minutes in your teaching day a couple times per week to connect with your fellow teachers. Any action plan starts with the people. Working together is what saves the kids most in need of our help.
Below is a list of the programs that are in place at my former school (every program requires working with the parents at home as well as the help of teachers, staff and community members). Not all of these programs focus specifically on food, but they all contribute to the well-being of children, especially those in need.
-Backpack Food Program
This is for your top tier of children in need. Every Friday, our community liaison (a teacher in the Title 1A program) would stock high nutrient-dense food, that is also easy to prepare, into selected children’s backpacks. The kids would then have guaranteed food for the weekend and probably enough for snacks for the following week.
We would also send home large food boxes on school vacations, and long weekends.
-Food Bank partnership
After a local church found out about our high poverty rate, they contacted our principal and focused their food bank efforts and clothing drives for our school. We would pick up weekly stocks of food for the children’s backpacks from this church. This was an incredibly important partnership. During our annual food drive, we would just take all the food to the church and they would process the inventory and disperse it to our families. This church has a large membership and had nowhere to focus their giving, thank goodness they found our school.
The Title 1 staff and I put together a one-page brochure for all of the programs available at our school, and the contact of each person heading up that program. We felt that limiting the number of people in charge would be better and less intimidating for parents. They would feel more comfortable working with the one or two point people on the programs. This also contributed to the confidentiality aspect that is so important for families. Teachers received copies of this easy-to-read brochure, copies were available at the main office, as well as information tables during conferences. Teachers were also given a list of resources available through our county and city services as well. This gave contact information for everything from assistance paying bills to help escaping domestic violence. Our counselor and community liaison would also be available to help families with these resources as well.
Families (who previously were identified as benefiting from assistance) were contacted prior to school starting and asked if they would like help with school backpacks and other supplies. Teachers were also told to be on the lookout for kids that did not arrive with adequate supplies. Parents of those kids were then contacted and asked if additional supplies would be helpful for their family.
Our county had a clothes closet, where staff members could make an appointment and bring children to shop for new/used clothes. This was arranged with parents and conducted during school hours. Students could pick out clothes for themselves and other children in their family as well. This was particularly important during the winter time.
There an innumerable grants that are available to fund children’s needs, a good resource to search would be your local teacher’s union. Our state teacher’s union, Oregon Education Association, along with the national teacher’s union, National Education Association, have grants available that I have applied for and won several times. It is a very easy application process, it is also underapplied so there are almost always funds available.
-Shop with a Cop and Christmas for Kids
These are programs sponsored by companies to help children ‘buy’ a present for their family members, and themselves as well!
Shop with a Cop is a great program that pairs up school resource officers and at-risk kids of all ages. Developing positive relationships with law enforcement is very important. Police officers are excellent resources for help in a variety of situations, assistance and general community building.
Christmas for Kids is a program through Fred Meyers, and is for children kindergarten through second grade. Children get to shop for presents, staff help them wrap the presents and then bring them home.
-Lions Club Eyeglass Program
I have only used this program once, and it was terrific. This is for children who need glasses but there is not room in their family budget to buy them. The child gets a certificate and can choose their own glasses with their prescription.
-Grocery stores, casual dining restaurants, any company!
I have shamelessly asked a ton of companies for assistance; food donations, clothes, shoes, etc… Every company has granted my requests, usually coming through with more than I even asked for. Albertson’s gave me 50 fully cooked Christmas dinners one year, Pizza Hut donated pizza for our parent info nights, Big Town Hero donated hundreds of sandwiches. Fred Meyers donated gloves for my class during a snowy year. A local dentist once donated toothbrushes for my entire class, along with floss and toothpaste. He also came into my class and did a fun lesson about brushing teeth!
Most companies are very helpful and they get a nice tax write-off as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for donations of any kind, these are kids and they need our help!