Starving Young Minds: How Hunger Is Hurting Our Children At School

A child’s academic success is key to their overall well-being. While in school, kids learn not only academic material, but also social skills, knowledge about their health, and other essential life skills. Children gain more control of their futures when they are able to succeed in school. But there are certain factors that may hinder their ability to learn.

Hunger is one of these factors.

Nationally, hunger affects children in every state. A 2015 study found that 93 percent of educators are concerned about the long-term effects hunger may have on their students’ education. When a child comes to school hungry, they may find it difficult to focus and get through the day. For some kids, once they finish their classes, they return home not knowing when they’ll get their next meal.

Students reaching for healthy food in school cafeteria
Photo: Adobe Stock/xixinxing

Unfortunately, this issue of hunger in school is almost always out of the child’s control. Hunger often comes out of poverty, which leads to food insecurity.

“There are food insecure and hungry kids in every Congressional district and every demographic,” Lucy Melcher, the director of advocacy and government relations for the nonprofit Share Our Strength, stated to The Washington Post. “Food insecurity is a family that has enough money to buy groceries three out of four weeks; it’s a mom skipping dinner; it’s having to choose between buying groceries and paying rent.”

And it’s a hungry child in school.

By building awareness of childhood hunger and pinpointing tangible solutions, we can tackle this national issue, and help our country’s children stay full and stay focused.

How does hunger impact school performance?

When a human’s basic needs are not met, every other aspect of life becomes less of a priority. This is true when it comes to children who are hungry in school. Children who are living in food-insecure households during the first five years of their lives are more likely to experience delayed social, emotional, and cognitive development. Once they are in school, these children are more likely to experience the following setbacks:

  • Impaired focus
  • Lower math scores
  • Higher chance of repeating a grade in elementary school
  • Impaired cognitive ability
  • Language and motor skill difficulties
  • Trouble adapting to the workforce as an adult

“I think there is good research that shows that nutrition is critical for a child’s brain and for concentration and learning at school,” Dr. Tanya Altmann of the American Academy of Pediatrics told CNN. “So whether breakfast is provided at home or at school, as a pediatrician, I do see a difference in kids that get good nutrition in the morning, such as protein, fresh fruit and enough calories, and how they function during the day at school.”

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Tired boring boy don't want to do his difficult school homework
Photo: Adobe Stock/mizina

What can we do about hunger in schools?

While hunger in schools is a widespread and complicated issue, there are ways that you can help combat this epidemic. These are some of the most important steps you can take to help curb hunger both nationally and in your community.

  • Be an advocate for government programs. One of the most important government programs concerning hunger is the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Previously known as the Food Stamp Program, SNAP supports about 41.5 million people. Another crucial program is Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC. Contact your congressional representatives about bolstering funding for these programs.
  • Support school programs. In addition to the national programs that offer help to our country’s households, many others operate in local schools. One key resource is the USDA-funded National School Lunch Program, which provides 30 million kids with free or reduced-priced lunches at school. Other similar programs operate on the local level. See which ones are available in your community.
  • Get involved with local organizations. While you are supporting school-based resources, take the time to donate to local food banks as well. Consider volunteering your time to collect and serve food at your community’s food banks and soup kitchens.

Every child deserves to get a fulfilling education. This is why hunger in schools is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. By acting collectively, we can give every child the opportunity to create a healthy, vibrant future for themselves. What will you do to fight hunger in schools today?

Carli Smith

Editor’s Note: This article is presented by Nature’s Bakery.

Author Carli Smith is the Marketing Communications Coordinator and a writer for Nature’s Bakery. She is a yoga enthusiast and loves nothing more than weekend getaways, Disney movies, ocean views, and country concerts.

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