Feeding Our Poor Children

Educators are among the first to see children in need – in need of protection, in need of basic services like dental and medical services and food.

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.

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.

Nationwide, one in five households with children are considered food insecure, which means people in the household are at risk of going hungry or missing meals or don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

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.

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, some schools are adding dinner as well. A school can serve dinner if at least half the children in its attendance area are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. They also keep students coming to school.

As the number of children in public schools who live in poverty increases, schools need to feed hungry students.

Students who are hungry have difficulty focusing on learning. Society needs to focus on the answer to where do these children find food over the summer, during Easter and Christmas breaks and over the weekends.