‘It’s hard to focus’: Schools say American kids are hungry

America’s schools say kids are hungry — just as pandemic-era benefit programs have expired. There is growing concern about the impact on children’s learning abilities.

Congress temporarily made school meals free for all American schoolchildren, but since the end of last fall the need seems to have only increased.

Rising food prices are putting additional strain on families, who are seeing cuts in multiple types of financial assistance. A federal program ending this month had given nearly 30 million Americans extra food stamps during the pandemic.

School cafeterias don’t typically turn away a hungry child, but the debt for unpaid school meals has risen — showing the level of distress and raising questions about how schools can continue to feed everyone without allocating federal funding to it. The neediest children are entitled to free or discounted meals as before the pandemic, but to qualify for these benefits requires applications that have not been required for several years.

“Programs that provide direct food assistance are extremely important, and we’ll see the impact if we don’t have them over the next few months,” said Megan Curran, policy director of Columbia University’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy.

In the final school year, when nearly all schools were back to in-person operations, the number of school meals served to students increased dramatically and was slightly above pre-pandemic levels, according to a report Thursday by the Food Research & Action Center. Already, states are reporting a decrease in the number of meals served.

More than 34 million people, including 9 million children, in the United States are fed, according to the US Department of Agriculture, meaning they do not have consistent access to enough food to keep all family members healthy.

According to researchers, children in such households are more likely to have school problems and repeat grades, among other things.

Fourth grader Fabian Aguirre has a hard time thinking about math equations when he sits in class with a growling stomach.

When he arrives in the morning, Fabian eats the breakfast served by the South Phoenix school, but he can get hungry in class before lunch. On days when he doesn’t eat at home, even the meals provided by the school are not enough to keep him full.

“It’s hard to concentrate in class when I’m hungry. Eating helps me pay attention to what I’m learning,” said Fabian, 10.

At his school, VH Lassen Academy of Science and Nutrition, all students are entitled to free meals. The Roosevelt School District, where 80% of its students are Hispanic and 12% Black, covers meals through a federal program for low-income school communities.

To reach out to students who may be embarrassed at not having eaten at home, the school recently changed the way it distributes free breakfast. Carts filled with prepackaged breakfast meals will be rolled in front of the school entrance instead of being kept in the cafeteria.

“We found that between 7 and 7:15 a.m., many of our students went straight to the playground and not to the cafeteria for a pre-school meal,” said Jessica Padilla, a sixth grade math and science teacher.

While they lasted, the universal free meals addressed several concerns about 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, are using state money to continue these programs, but most have gone back to charging all but the neediest children for meals.

When the free meals for everyone ran out, “the families were confused and bewildered,” said National PTA President Anna King. They were unprepared for the paperwork after two years without them — and many families with young children never got tired of the outs.

It can be difficult for parents to ask for the help they need, said Jillien Meier, director of No Kid Hungry. Immigrant parents, she said, may also avoid filling out forms requesting free or reduced-price meals out of concern that it might draw unwanted attention if they are in the US illegally.

Teachers are often the ones who notice chronic hunger in students.

Martissa Moore, a teacher at Bainbridge Middle School in Bainbridge, Georgia, recalls a seventh grade student who had his head on his desk during class, argued with other students, and struggled to keep up academically. Moore felt he wasn’t getting enough to eat.

That year she brought him what her daughter had for breakfast every day and slowly saw his reading skills improve.

“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 medical adviser at Feeding America, said it shouldn’t be for teachers to deal with child hunger.

“Because we have so much child food insecurity, we shift that responsibility to schools,” she said. “But normal child development is to have access to food at home. That’s part of creating a stable environment for families in America where kids will be ready to learn when they come to school.”


Arleigh Rodgers is a corps member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. She reported from Indianapolis. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.


The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/congress-ap-america-phoenix-american-b2298723.html ‘It’s hard to focus’: Schools say American kids are hungry


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