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Teachers Struggle to Feed Hungry Students in Order to Teach

Posted: Dec 23, 2011

“Miss, can we have a snack break?” asked one of the students in my after-school 'Hip Hop Stylez' class at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco. As a teacher, I have heard this question countless numbers of times at the beginning, middle and end of my classes. In my first few months at James Lick, I often struggled with keeping my students' energy up and their attention focused on the task at hand. I would often go home worried about how I could improve my lesson plans to get the students more engaged.

But after about a month and a half of teaching, I began to realize one of the reasons for my students acting out: they were not getting enough to eat to sustain themselves throughout the day. Even with the small cartons of juice and grab-size snack bags that the after-school enrichment program supplies, they were not feeling satisfied.

From then on I started to let my students take an additional snack break in the middle of our two-hour class when they could get another snack bag to tide themselves over until the 6:30 p.m. dismissal. While a handful of my students took up this opportunity, I also noticed a few shied away from the snacks. Some mentioned in passing that they did not like the juice drinks (from concentrate) and starchy treats that the after-school program supplied.

Even though the program makes a clear effort to serve students healthier alternatives to chips and soda, the grab-size bags of animal crackers, pretzels and an occasional hot snack simply does not cut it for most students. Entering my third month of teaching, I started buying supplemental food for my class to eat during snack breaks and as rewards for their hard work.

Twice a week, I visit the Whole Foods market a few blocks from James Lick to purchase tasty organic snacks for my small after-school class. Each month, this adds up to about four hours of shopping for sales and anywhere from $32 to $60 in groceries. Some days, I give them sweets, and other days—when I can afford more substantive snacks—I bring in fruit and cereal.

Earlier in the day, I work at Herbert Hoover Middle School in the Sunset district where a handful of my colleagues in the special education program also make concerted efforts to help ensure that students have enough to eat. While I mainly help out with autistic students, I also work with a number of young people who struggle with other emotional and behavioral issues. These issues can range from depression to dealing with trauma related to divorce, living in foster homes, drugs and gang violence. In addition to having these struggles play out in the classroom on a daily basis, the fact that students often come to school without an adequate breakfast or lunch makes teaching an even more difficult job.

Much of the cafeteria food—like the after-school snacks—rely on starchy, high-carb foods like pizza, potatoes and bread to keep kids full. At lunch, I have even seen some of my colleagues give away nutrition bars and pieces of fruit to students who chronically walk the halls hungry during the lunch hour. Even with free and reduced lunch programs there are students who do not eat anything throughout the school day. For some, it seems that there is a fear of being stigmatized, while others genuinely cannot stomach what the cafeteria serves.

In the morning, when I ask my students what they had for breakfast, a number of them show me backpack pockets full of candy wrappers. “Nothing,” another one of my students replied. “Does your family eat breakfast?” I asked him privately. He replied with a silent shrug.

In the state of California, one in four children lives in poverty and just over 24 percent of children are enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs at school. About 14 percent receive food stamps while, according to a 2011 study by California Food Policy Advocates, participation in summer lunch programs has decreased by roughly 50 percent between 2002 and 2010 due to federal budget cuts. African-American, Latino and Native American children are among the hardest hit by hunger and poverty-related disparities.

When students are hungry, they come to class agitated and unable to focus. Often it is hard to complete even the most basic academic exercise or follow classroom directions. Other students get extremely sleepy or might refuse to do the work entirely. Although hunger is one of many factors that plays into this behavior, it has become obvious to many of my colleagues that students without proper nutrition can pose very real challenges to our ability to create a functional learning environment. Nearing the holidays, many staff members at Hoover even chipped in their gas money and funds they would typically use to feed their own family to put on small parties for the kids.

I am one of many educators doing what I can to make small contributions each day to keep our students in school and properly fed, but it is a difficult feat. With many of us working on shoestring budgets, even small purchases here and there add up. For my colleagues with families of their own, I know that in addition to trying to make up for a lack of school supplies, buying snacks for their students can directly affect how much food they put on their own table at home.

We continue to do what we can because we realize that even with the economic uncertainty of the times we cannot afford to see our students fail. Yet this model of educator as teacher/provider is not sustainable and it certainly does not let us reach our greatest potential in the classroom. We too have limits to how much we can give while we ourselves are just trying to get by.

It is alarming that classrooms are becoming places where students have increasingly come to expect their basic needs to be met. With California's bleak economy and budget crisis, it is with a great sense of hope and anxiety that I look to the future of my students. Hope, inspired by my fellow staff members who demonstrate so much selflessness on a daily basis, and anxiety about how forthcoming financial hurdles may topple this precarious balancing act.

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