Food Insecurity: A Real Reason Kids May be Hungry at School – and What We Can Do About It: Part 3 of 3

For millions of American children, school lunch is often their best – and sometimes – only real meal of the day. According to Feeding America, 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011. The numbers can tell the scope, but the not very painful effects of food insecurity for children. 

School nutrition professionals know that Mondays and Fridays are often the worst days of the week for food insecure children. On Monday morning, many children really are “starving” after a weekend without enough food to fill their stomachs well. At school breakfast on Monday morning, children can seem insatiable and want more than one serving. How would you feel after a weekend without enough to eat?

On Friday’s school lunch, food insecure children may tend to overeat and/or to hoard food that they can scavenge from other student’s trays. This not bad behavior or a hunger game. It is a very real and natural response to being deprived of food. It is the body’s response to being chronically underfed, as documented in Ansel Keyes classic study of starvation in healthy young men.

Middle school students wait for breakfast in Billings, Montana

We do not completely understand the complex interactions of food insecurity, obesity and undernutrition, especially in their effect on children. The Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) offers an excellent summary of the key factors that make low-income and food insecure families more vulnerable to overweight and obesity, including:

  • Cycles of food deprivation and overeating
  • Lack of access to healthy, affordable foods
  • Fewer opportunities for physical activity
  • High levels of stress
  • Limited access to health care

While we have a national discussion about the merits of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and the the 2012 Nutrition Standards for School Meals, we must never forget those students who are truly hungry – not just YouTube sensations because they didn’t approve of their new food options in the cafeteria. Whether you call it childhood hunger or family food insecurity, this is a real and tragic problem in our country.

In terms of what we can do, there is no better role model than Senator George McGovern, who passed away today after a decades of public service. We can each look around our own communities and ask a simple question: What is the most effective thing that I can do to end hunger? 

With gratitude for your decades of service

Some Very Real Reasons Why Kids May Be Hungry at School – and What We Can Do About It: Part 1 of 3

I’ve watched the videos from the hungry teen athletes in Kansas and Jon Stewart’s amusing Starved By the Bell segment. I’ve read about the boycotts and heard dedicated school nutrition professionals talk seriously about getting their high schools out of the National School Lunch Program.

I’m very sorry that meals for kids at school are once again fodder for YouTube videos and late night TV. I’m even sorrier that school nutrition has become a political football like so many other issues. I am sorriest for the thousands of school nutrition heroes who have been trying to make the 2012 USDA Nutrition Standards work and the millions of low-income children who reply on schools cafeterias to provide their best meals of the day.

There are some very real reasons why students, especially teens, may be hungry during the school day. If everyone focused on finding real solutions, we could work together to benefit all students – improving their nutrition, health and academic performance. Here are two of the very real reasons that kids may be hungry at school – stay tuned for more reasons in parts 2 and 3.

Greek Pizza with hummus on whole grain crust, Johnston, Rhode Island, High School

Reason #1: Kids, especially teens, are hungry because they don’t eat breakfast.

SOLUTION: Breakfast every day for every student

According to the 2011 Kellogg’ Breakfast in America Survey, breakfast eating dips as kids grow older; 77 percent of young children eat breakfast every day, but this falls to 50 percent in the middle-school years and 36 percent among high school students. If you don’t eat breakfast, the new calorie ranges may not be enough to be both a breakfast and a lunch. And, more importantly, you will have found it hard (if not impossible) to concentrate and learn in your morning classes.

Schools need breakfast programs that are convenient for kids and practical for school food service. There are lots of successful models: Grab-and-Go breakfast options, like new kiosks planned for Medford (MA) schools, breakfast in the classroom being successfully implemented in districts coast to coast, and cafeteria breakfast bars with made-to-order breakfast burritos, as seen in my hometown of Billings, Montana.

Made-to-Order, Breakfast Burrito Bar, Senior High School, Billings, Montana

Reason #2: Most school schedule recess after lunch, so kids rush to get outside.

SOLUTION: Recess Before lunch

When kids are eager for recess, they often dump hunger-satisfying foods into the trash. It’s only nutrition WHEN they eat or drink, so we should maximize scheduling to get the food into the kids. Honestly, it’s not rocket science that children would be hungrier and thirstier when they have the chance to play first – and that exactly what schools report according to Starving for Recess, a 2011 District Administration article.

Scheduling Recess Before Lunch (RBL) isn’t rocket-science either and there are plenty of resources from Montana Team Nutrition to help schools with the process. RBL can even save money since many schools report significant decreases in garbage removal costs when students are active first, eating more food and drinking more milk afterward.

Recess Before Lunch Guide, Montana Team Nutrition (2008)

Summer Meals: Feeding Hungry Bodies and Hungry Brains

June 13th was a very important day for many children in Billings, Montana. Last Wednesday marked the beginning of Billings Public Schools’ Summer Food Service Program, AKA lunch in park 2012. For many low-income children and their families, it will be a day to celebrate because, sadly, hunger does not take a summer vacation.

For many children, the end of the school year is the beginning of a summer filled with fun and relaxation. However, for a significant number of families in Montana and across the USA, summer is an especially difficult time of year. During the summer months, children from low-income families do not have access to school breakfast or lunch and their families may have a hard time putting enough nutritious food on the table. In these situations, Summer Food Service Programs (SFSP) can fill a critical nutrition gap.

In his weekly column kicking off  the Second Annual National Summer Food Service Program Week (June 11th to 15th)), Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack explained the importance of  USDA’s summer meals for kids. “Proper nutrition is critical for a child’s ability to learn, grow, and be ready to achieve their dreams – and hunger is one of the most severe roadblocks to the learning process. Lack of nutrition during the summer months may set up a cycle for poor performance once school begins again and can make children more prone to illness and other health issues year-round.”

Thanks to Billings Education Foundation, generous donors, and dozens of volunteers, for six weeks this summer hungry kids in Billings, Montana, can feed their minds as well as their bodies during lunch. Reading Rocks provides guest storytellers, individual readers, and free books to children across the city. This past week, to kick off Reading Rocks for 2012, members of Billings Action for Healthy Kids (BAFHK), a local coalition advocating for children’s nutrition and fitness, were guest storytellers. They read deliciously fun books about eating smart and talked with kids and their families about tasty foods choices that help you grow strong and stay well.

Eating at home or taking a picnic to the park for your kids this summer? Reading about nutrition can help them enjoy good nutrition too. Here are four books recommended by this summer’s BAFHK guest readers. You can check them out at your local library, favorite bookstore, or online booksellers.

  • I Will Never Not Ever Eat A Tomato, by Lauren Child
  • Growing Vegetable Soup, by Lois Ehlert
  • Mama Provi and The Pot of Rice, by Sylvia Rosa-Cassanova
  • Bread and Jam for Francis, Russell Hoban