Schools becoming the ‘last frontier’ for hungry kids
Marisol Bello, USA Today – Published 5:34 pm ET April 5, 2015
America’s schools are no longer just a place for students to learn their ABCs.
They are also increasingly where children eat their three squares.
The classroom has become a dining room as more children attending public schools live in poverty. More than half of students in public schools — 51% — were in low-income families in 2013, according to a study by the Southern Education Foundation.
The number of low-income children in public schools has been persistent and steadily rising over the past several decades. In 1989, 32% of children in public schools lived in poverty, the foundation says.
Such a stark trend has meant more schools are feeding children when they can’t get enough to eat at home. More schools provide not just breakfast and lunch but dinner, too. Others are opening food pantries in converted classrooms or closets. It’s common for teachers and counselors to keep crackers, granola bars and other goodies in their desks for hungry students.
The data show that the schoolhouse is becoming the new cookhouse:
- More states are providing after-school meals in communities where at least half the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. A federal program covering dinner at school expanded to all states in 2010. Before that, only 13 states and the District of Columbia could provide dinner. The rest could offer only after-school snacks such as peanuts and popcorn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, estimates that 108 million after-school meals were served in fiscal year 2014, up from 81 million in fiscal year 2013.
- More schools are opening permanent or mobile food pantries. Last year, 1,141 schools ran food pantries on their grounds, up from 834 the year before, says Feeding America, which runs 200 food banks across the country. Food banks are the warehouse operations that provide food to pantries.
- More than a third of teachers, 37%, buy food more than once a month for students, according to a 2015 report by advocacy group No Kid Hungry. On average, teachers spend $35 a month to keep food in their classrooms for hungry children.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama said he would set a goal of ending childhood hunger by this year. He pushed for the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which Congress passed in 2010 with support from both parties. The act expanded the number of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, increased the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches and expanded the after-school meal program. It became one of the administration’s primary means to fight childhood hunger.
In March, the Agriculture Department announced $27 million in grants to five states that are trying to reduce childhood hunger.
One of the pilot programs, in Virginia, will test the effect of providing three meals a day to students in a select number of schools in Richmond and in the southwestern part of the state. The program will also provide food to poor children when school is out on the weekends and during school breaks.
One in six children in Virginia are at risk of hunger, says first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, whose office is overseeing the anti-hunger efforts.
“Hunger is quite invisible,” McAuliffe says, “unless you experience it or see it because you know someone.”
She says schools are the obvious place to end hunger in children because that is where they spend their days.
Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, disputes that the level of childhood hunger is great enough to justify expanding federal meal programs. He says the federal measure that focuses on the “risk” of hunger a child faces is not as precise as measuring how many children actually go hungry. He points to a USDA report from 2013, the most recent available, that found 360,000 households with caregivers who say children in the family went hungry, skipped meals or did not eat for a whole day because there was not enough money for food.
“This is a program in quest of a problem,” he says.
Instead, he says, the federal government should focus more on helping low-income families spend their dollars and food stamps more wisely.
SCHOOL DINNERS ARE ‘LAST FRONTIER’
The school lunch program has grown steadily since 1969, when the USDA began keeping track. Last year, a record 11.52 million children received free or reduced-price breakfast and a record 21.7 million received free or reduced-price lunch.
Now, dinner is on the menu.
The number of dinners served in schools is growing too, says Jim Weill, president of the non-profit Food Research and Action Center, which lobbies for government policies to reduce hunger.
“It is the last frontier,” Weill says, in meeting the nutrition needs of children.
A school can serve dinner if at least half the children in its attendance area are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
In the Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland, where a third of students overall are eligible, 30 of the district’s 119 public schools serve dinner, says Jodi Risse, supervisor of the food and nutrition services.
“We were hesitant at first,” Risse says. School officials were not sure of the extent of the need or the logistics of how and when to offer dinner, she says.
Last school year, district schools served 89,855 dinners. So far this year, they have served 68,900 and expect to pass last year’s number, Risse says.
Schools in Burlington, Vt., have increased the number of suppers served from 135 meals in two schools in 2012 to 775 in nine schools, says Doug Davis, director of the district’s food services, which provides the meals.
Every school day from 3:10 p.m. to 3:45 p.m., the cafeteria of the Lyman C. Hunt Middle School in the northern part of the city is buzzing. Students can choose to eat from the salad bar, a hot meal or hot sandwiches, says principal Len Phelan.
The school of 403 students, many of them from immigrant families that speak as many as 31 languages, began serving dinner in September.
Phelan says some families across the manufacturing area of New England, which lost jobs during the recession, have not recovered, and it has left children in those households vulnerable.
“If a student is struggling, it’s a sign the family is struggling,” he says.
The meals, Phelan says, give students peace of mind so they can focus on things like studying. They also keep students coming to school.
“It’s an investment in the health of our kids,” he says.
SCHOOL FOOD PANTRIES ARE ‘BLESSING’
At Lexington Elementary School in El Cajon, Calif., the school is trying another solution to its students’ hunger problems.
Twice a month, the school sets up what looks like a farmers market on its front lawn. Wooden pallets are packed with boxes of fresh produce, milk, bread and other food from the Feeding America San Diego food bank. Families line up for the pantry hours before it opens, says Tita Cordero-Bautista, who runs the school’s community programs.
She says every child in the school is eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Lexington and other schools in San Diego County are using the in-school pantries to phase out popular programs such as one that sent children home with backpacks of food for the weekend. A pantry puts the responsibility on a parent or caretaker to take food home and allows a family to have more food than a child could carry in a backpack, says Amanda Schaap, spokeswoman for Feeding America San Diego.
Ilya Uribe, 39, who has fourth- and fifth-graders attending the school, calls the pantry a life-saver. She says her family receives $400 a month in food stamps, but they run low by the end of the month. She says she often has $20 left at the end of the month, just enough to buy bread and milk for her family of four.
“When the food pantry comes, it’s like a blessing,” says Uribe, who volunteers and works part-time at the school as a lunch aide and parking lot attendant. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone in and they have bread, vegetables, canned soups. What a relief.”
Rosemary Ramirez, 27, lives with her two sisters and their five children in a two-bedroom apartment. The extra 20 or so pounds of food they receive from the school’s pantry relieves a burden.
Ramirez works part-time at the school and one of her sisters works part-time at a store. She says their combined income has to cover basics, such as rent and clothing, and take care of their grandfather in Tijuana, Mexico. She says one of her sisters receives food stamps, but they still struggle to feed the family.
“There are so many of us, we’ll finish the food stamps halfway through the month,” she says. “So this means so much to me and my family, because we do run out of food.”
Perry High School in Perry, Iowa, is taking a different approach to the school pantry. The staff there converted an unused photography darkroom into a pantry for students that includes not just food but also toiletries such as toothpaste and shampoo. They get their food donations from the Food Bank of Iowa.
“We started seeing more of a need for students who lived independently or their parents were not there,” says Tami Valline, a counselor who runs the pantry. “In an ideal world, kids would get everything they need outside of school, but that’s not the reality.”
She says when students are having trouble in school, one of the first things she asks them is “Are you hungry? Have you had anything to eat?” Invariably, she says, “They say, ‘Yes. I’m starving.'”
Billy Shore, chief executive officer of No Kid Hungry, says that as the number of children in public schools who live in poverty increases, schools need to do more to tap into the options available to feed hungry students.
“This is such a solvable problem,” he says “Solving poverty is complex. Feeding children is not.”