George Lucas Educational Foundation

Hunger Pangs: The Empty-Stomach Problem

As families struggle to buy food, schools get creative about feeding students.
By Andrea Orr
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Susan Phillips, a teacher at Enfield Elementary School, in rural Enfield, New York, recently noticed that one of her fourth-grade students was always cranky and distracted at the start of the week but turned mild mannered by Tuesday.

It wasn't a case of the Monday-morning blues -- it was hunger. Her student ate pretty well on subsidized school breakfasts, lunches, and after-school snacks, but over the weekend, he just couldn't get enough food at home. "We would feed him practically nonstop throughout the day, and by Tuesday he was back to his usual self," Phillips says.

The school got proactive and started sending its neediest students home every Friday with a backpack full of ready-to-eat provisions like peanut butter crackers, granola bars, and SpaghettiOs. Five of Phillips's twenty-eight students got permission from their parents to participate, and Monday mornings became a lot easier. "I saw a dramatic change," Phillips says.

More than half a century ago, the National School Lunch act was passed, allocating funds for nutritious meals at school, and these days many educators worry more about childhood obesity than about malnutrition. Yet hunger among children appears to be on the rise, prompting many food banks to expand distribution to schoolchildren while training teachers to identify students at risk.

Schools in thirty-nine states and in Washington, DC, send some 35,000 students home with food-filled backpacks each week -- double the number from the previous year -- through a program organized by Feeding America, a national network of food banks. Educators try to be discreet by broaching the topic with students in private and using plain, unlabeled backpacks, but many have found that children are pretty comfortable discussing hunger. "A lot of times, children are telling the teachers that they are not eating," says Jan Pruitt, CEO of the North Texas Food Bank, in Dallas, one of the largest food banks in the country.

The food bank, which works to dispel the myth that hunger is a problem confined to the homeless or the unemployed, says 40 percent of the households it serves have at least one employed adult, and many have children. Even in wealthy areas, kids can go hungry.

And though some signs of hunger, such as hoarding food, may be obvious, subtler changes in behavior or energy levels on Monday morning -- everything from hyperactivity to poor attention span -- can also signal a weekend with too little food. Physical symptoms such as puffy skin, dry eyes, or dry lips, furthermore, may indicate a vitamin deficiency. Pruitt says teachers are often surprised to learn that a "problem" student is really just hungry: "They will say, 'Oh, my gosh. I never thought of him being hungry.'"

In 2006, Feeding America estimated that one in every six U.S. children lacks adequate amounts of nutritious food on a regular basis. No comprehensive study has been conducted since then, but teachers and food-bank workers have observed the problem getting worse as rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment, and rampant home foreclosures squeeze more families. In upstate New York, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier recently started supplying more food backpacks when it heard from teachers about students showing up with headaches or other hunger-related problems that made it hard to concentrate.

"It's not a good year," says Maura Daly, vice president of government relations and advocacy at Feeding America, which is seeing a 20 percent increase in food-bank demand over last year. "I'd say it's a perfect storm."

Teachers who make an effort to identify and get help for hungry students are often rewarded with a more manageable classroom environment. Hunger in children is linked to a long list of physical and behavioral problems, from tardiness and absenteeism to anxiety, aggression, and poor social interaction. "There may be only one child in the class who is hungry," says food-bank CEO Jan Pruitt, "but his or her behavior can affect everybody."

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Stephen Krashen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and former education columnist for the New York Times, observed that, if raising test scores is our goal, food might be the easy answer ... "There's evidence to suggest that giving every schoolchild a good breakfast will raise test scores more than ending social promotion, increasing accountability, or requiring more testing. It's a fact that iron deficiency anemia, twice as common in low-income children as in better- off children, affects cognitive ability. In experiments in which students got inexpensive vitamin and mineral supplements, reported Rothstein, "test scores rose from that treatment alone." So where are the demands in Congress for an Eat for Success campaign? Plenty of us would march for No Child Left Unfed.
Susan Ohanian, Capitalism, Calculus and Conscience
Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 84, 2003

Olga Mendez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am 52 years old and remember about being hungry. I can't believe that we still have that problem in our country of plenty. I was not hungry because my family didn't work. I was hungry because we didn't have a lot of money. I did enjoy the food in the cafeteria at school. As a teacher I know that we have to feed the bodies if we want to feed the minds. Thanks for the article.

Laura's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in an urban area and pack a huge lunch everyday-not for myself-but for my students.
Yes the school is Title 1.
Yes the school provides breakfast and lunch for these kids.
Yes these kids come to school hungry.
Yes these kids eat breakfast and lunch at the school.
But the breakfasts and lunches are not enough to fill the growing boys in the middle school and is not enough to fill the children for whom this is the ONLY food that they receive teach day.
So for some of these kids, I bring in juices, apples and oranges, half a sandwich, crackers, cookies, whatever I have in my pantry.
Honestly-I couldn't believe it eitherbefore I started teaching...I thought kids who lived in poverty were fed through my tax dollars etc
But some of teh stuff these kids have to eat--many go hungry rather than eat the crappy food available for them--I don't blame them--most of it I wouldn't touch either-Yuck!
I don't know what happened to the War on Poverty...maybe people got greedy, took care of themselves, and stopped really caring about others. Maybe they allowed themselves to put their heads in the sand and assured themselves that "someone" else was taking care of the children of this nation.
I make so little money and must support my family on my wages while buying shoes for kids who need these items to go to school.

Jeanie Robinson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Right now, my head is flashing the faces of those students who have a difficult time on Mondays. I teach at a high poverty school. I hadn't really thought about Monday problems being due to hunger, I always thought it was due to the lack of structure ... per my lessons in graduate school. I am going to pass this article on to our school social worker. I know we need to participate in a program like this at our school.

Kim Bochicchio's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A very smart person once told me that the key to engage students is to feed them. I was unaware that this advice would be the best advice I ever received. I have fed students who did not eat breakfast for various reasons, fed students who I was sure did not eat dinner the night before and continue to feed those children who are not even in my class. I have had breakfast club with my first period class on several occasions and watched them come to life after a pack of crackers fed their hunger. Many times my students come to visit and I give them the only food I have left, my lunch. I would not change this for the world. I know that after some crackers and fruit snacks the students are ready to return to class and learn. I do this because as a mom I know that one day someone did a kind deed like this for my sons. We are fortunate...we as teachers shape the future and a little kindness on our parts can go a long way.

Carole Reiss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a believer in seving food to students before the early morning class begins. Students who are poor, tend to not eat regularly, and also do not nutriously.The effects of this are seen in the classroom and as a result they fidget, talk excessivley, fall asleep, and lack concentration. As educators, we can find a way to add food to our lessons, and give our students a chance at learning. Good students start with good teachers. When the child is angry, upset, distracted, try a healthy snack and watchhim become alert and attentive. This is what a good parent needs to do, so remember...we are the parents when they are with us!

Kenyon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kids need enough food in order for them to grow healthy and to respond in everyday activity. However some parents neglect to feed their kids with nutritious food. Because of having short budget they would buy affordable foods but it does not contain nutrients needed in child growth. Hunger would get worse as we the country is in the midst on economic crisis. The economic stimulus package has a very unpopular provision in it, but thus far it's only unpopular with other countries. No stimulus funds are to be given to companies that outsource jobs, or hire guest workers on H1-B visas. This provision of the economic stimulus package is regarded as rank protectionism by other countries, which are (understandably) upset by the diminished ability that results of not being able to provide their citizens with good jobs, especially India. India has provided tech-savvy guest workers for years, and those jobs are incredibly lucrative. It seems that if it is supposed to help America, the economic stimulus package is hurting someone else.

SW11's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hunger is very important when it comes to people's performance. You see the same thing in university students. This is why they tell you to eat a good breakfast before class and definitely before a test at least an hour before. If you have fuel in the tank, you aren't wondering about when the heck you can get out of there and grab a bite, although you may wonder when you can get the heck out of there and grab a beer, but that's off the point. With school age children it's even more vital - and I am certainly glad to see that schools are taking the charitable initiative to feed these poor children in need. I find it ridiculous that in the same country we see actress after actress in the tabloids because she isn't eating enough by choice, and other people are starving due to circumstance. I say we should take Nicole Ritchie's food and give it to people who don't have enough.

Reil's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"That's right," the man said. "I couldn't remember the word." He was the only t, then high school students, and, finally, to anyone aged 13 and over. The website currently has more than 175 million active users in amount of visitors, making Facebook the most popular social network, followed by MySpace and Twitter.other human at the loading dock this morning. The man didn't have a name, just a number, like the rest of the robots. Paris, at Night.

Jacquelyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

making Facebook the most popular social network, followed by MySpace and Twitter.other human at the loading dock this morning. The man didn't have a name, just a number, like the rest of the robots. Paris, at Night.

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