While we’d like to believe that no child goes to school hungry in the United States, that’s far from the truth. Food insecurity is a real problem in America, and it affects children all across the nation. Families living in poverty or experiencing homelessness often cannot afford to provide the nutrition their children need.
Many people who are living in poverty and struggling to feed their children rely on meal programs from their public schools to fill in some of the gaps. Unfortunately, this is often not enough, so many kids go to bed hungry and struggle academically because of food insecurity.
The real extent of food insecurity in public schools is something that most people don’t have to think about. But for many families, it affects everything they do and is a constant source of worry. Here’s how food insecurity impacts kids in public schools and their families—and why we should be concerned.
What is Food Insecurity?
The definition of food insecurity is simple: it’s a lack of consistent access to safe and nutritious foods. There are different levels of food security however, ranging from low food security, which typically affects the quality and variety of foods an individual or family is able to buy, to very low food security, which can mean people actively going hungry.
For families with children, different levels of food insecurity could mean that one student goes to school having eaten poor-quality breakfast cereal with very little nutritional value, while another goes to school with an empty stomach. Classmates who are not experiencing food insecurity, on the other hand, might go to school having eaten high-quality protein and fresh produce.
These differences in access to proper nutrition can have a major impact on a child’s energy levels, mood, ability to focus, and other factors that affect their performance and behavior. Food insecurity can widen existing disparities and make it difficult for children living in poverty to keep up with their classmates.
Causes of Food Insecurity
The main driver of food insecurity is economic status. Families living in poverty due to unemployment, underemployment, or other factors often struggle with food insecurity. Government assistance can help, but many families do not get enough assistance to consistently access nutritious food. Healthy foods are consistently more expensive than conventional foods, meaning that the meals these families can afford tend to offer less nutrition for growing kids.
Another contributing factor to food insecurity is the existence of “food deserts.” These are areas that lack convenient access to fresh and affordable foods (such as grocery stores), forcing many people without transportation to purchase shelf-stable foods that offer little nutrition from convenience stores or dollar stores. Many people associate food deserts with urban areas, but they are common in rural areas as well.
Food Insecurity is Trending Upward
Economic conditions will always have an impact on the rates of food insecurity. Generally, when more people are unemployed, the number of people who struggle to put food on the table and need food assistance grows.
Although employment has been increasing after the chaos of the pandemic, inflation has also been rising. This has contributed to greater food insecurity, as many families are unable to cope with price hikes on basic necessities. In June of 2023, food insecurity rates were only slightly lower than they were in March and April of 2020 when a huge number of people were not working due to the pandemic.
So, what does this mean for students in public schools? It means that many children are not getting the nutrition they need at home to grow properly and excel academically. Food insecurity can have a major impact on nearly every area of a child’s life.
Food Insecurity in the Classroom
It’s hard to learn on an empty stomach. Hunger can make it difficult for students to focus on their studies, which can ultimately lead to achievement gaps between classmates and leaves food-insecure students behind. Students who are experiencing food insecurity are also more likely to be absent than their peers, which can cause them to fall behind even more.
In addition to the impact hunger has on academic performance, it can also influence students’ behavior. Hunger can affect mood and development, which both have an impact on behavior. Food-insecure kids are twice as likely to be suspended from school or to see a psychologist by the time they are teenagers. Behavioral problems in school make it less likely that students will graduate or have the opportunity to develop the social skills they need to succeed in the real world.
Food Insecurity Can Have Devastating Consequences
Aside from the impact of food insecurity on children’s development, mood, and academic performance, it can also have devastating consequences for families. In some school districts, parents have been told that they must pay their children’s student lunch debts or face the removal of their children.
Children who are removed from their parents or guardians might no longer struggle with food insecurity, but they are likely to face many other challenges. Such an extreme reaction from a school district does very little, if anything, to improve the lives of children and only punishes the entire family. Instead of providing meals free of charge, some schools take a severe, punitive stance toward parents who cannot afford to pay.
What Can Be Done to Address Food Insecurity in Public Schools?
Food insecurity has far-reaching consequences that make it difficult for kids to rise out of poverty and improve their socioeconomic status after they leave school. Tackling this problem is critical for the well-being of millions of children and will benefit society.
Many school districts have already begun offering meal programs beyond free lunch in an effort to reduce food insecurity among their students. Some schools offer a breakfast program or even after-school snacks and meals. These kinds of programs help ensure that all children get proper nutrition and contribute to a more positive school culture, instead of punishing parents who cannot afford to pay for school lunches.
While providing free and reduced-cost meals to children in public schools is important for reducing food insecurity, more needs to be done to reduce widespread problems like homelessness and poverty. School meals can only do so much when students don’t have stable housing and are often unable to attend school.
Food insecurity is a chronic systemic issue that will be difficult to solve. However, we have to ensure that students have the fuel they need to learn and live happy, healthy lives.
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