America’s schools say kids are starving — just as pandemic aid programs have run out. There is growing concern about the impact on children’s ability to learn.
Congress temporarily made school meals free for all American schoolchildren, but after that expired last fall, the need only seemed to grow.
The rapid increase in food prices is putting a strain on families who are being cut from various types of financial assistance. One federal program that ends this month has provided nearly 30 million Americans with supplemental food stamps during the pandemic.
School cafeterias don’t usually turn away a hungry child, but unpaid school meal arrears are rising, showing the level of need and raising questions about how schools will continue to feed everyone without federal money to do so. The neediest children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, as they were before the pandemic, but those benefits require applications that have not been needed for several years.
“Programs that provide direct food assistance are very important, and we will see the consequences of not having them over the next few months,” said Megan Curran, director of policy at Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.
Last school year, when nearly all schools resumed in-person operations, the number of school meals served to students rose sharply to slightly higher than before the pandemic, the Center for Nutrition Research and Action said in a report Thursday. States are already reporting reductions in meal intake, he said.
According to the USDA, more than 34 million people, including 9 million children, in the United States are food insecure, meaning they lack consistent access to enough food to keep every member of their family healthy.
According to researchers, children in such families are more likely to suffer academically and repeat grades, among other problems.
Fourth-grader Fabian Aguirre struggles to think about math equations as he sits in class with his stomach grumbling.
When he arrives in the morning, Fabian eats breakfast at school in South Phoenix, but he can be hungry in class by lunchtime. On days when he doesn’t eat at home at first, even the food offered at school isn’t enough to make him feel full.
“It’s hard for me to concentrate in class when I’m hungry. Food helps me focus on what I’m studying,” said 10-year-old Fabian.
At his school, VG Lassen Academy of Science and Nutrition, all students are entitled to free meals. Roosevelt School District, which is 80% Latino and 12% black, provides meals through a federal program for low-income school communities.
To reach students who may feel embarrassed about not eating at home, the school recently changed the way it distributes free breakfasts. Carts filled with prepackaged breakfasts are rolled out at the entrance to the school, not in the cafeteria.
“We realized that a lot of our students just go to the playground and not the cafeteria to eat before school, from 7 a.m. to 7:15 a.m.,” said sixth-grade math and science teacher Jessica Padilla. .
While they lasted, universal free meals solved several problems related to student hunger. There was no paperwork. And kids who needed them didn’t have to worry about stigma because they were available to everyone. Some states, including California, use public money to continue these programs, but most have returned to charging all but the neediest children for meals.
When free meals for all came to an end, “families were left in turmoil and confusion,” said National PTA President Anna King. They weren’t prepared for the paperwork after two years without it — and many families with young children never filled it out.
It can be difficult for parents to get the help they need, said Jillian Meyer, director of No Kid Hungry. Immigrant parents, she said, may also avoid filling out forms asking for free or reduced meals out of concern that doing so could attract unwanted attention if they are in the U.S. illegally.
Teachers often notice chronic hunger in students.
Martissa Moore, a teacher at Bainbridge Middle School in Bainbridge, Georgia, recalls a seventh-grader who would put his head on his desk during class, argue with other students and struggle to keep up academically. Moore felt that he was short of food.
Every day that year, she brought him what her daughter ate for breakfast and gradually saw progress in his reading skills.
“You just do what you have to do for your students because you don’t want them to go hungry,” Moore said.
Hilary Seligman, senior health advisor for Feeding America, said that teachers should not be the ones to solve the problem of childhood hunger.
“Because we have so much food insecurity among children, we shift that responsibility to the schools,” she said. “But normal child development is access to food at home. This is part of creating a stable environment for America’s families where children are ready to learn when they come to school.”
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