When Hunger Is an Equity Issue

"I'm Hungry"

I first made the connection between hunger and academic achievement when I was principal at Valley View Elementary School in Bloomington, MN. I got a call from one of my third-grade teachers about a student who was acting up and disrupting class. The boy sat in my office, and I asked him what was going on. After some time, he said, “I’m hungry. All we had was bread this morning, and my mom saves the ends for my baby sister.” I realized that what I was dealing with was not a discipline issue, but an equity issue

This was not my first experience with hunger. I myself had grown up in an unsettled home where access to food was often an issue. I moved a lot, and went to many different schools as a child. Ultimately, I became a teacher, and later principal, in high-poverty schools because those were the communities I felt I needed to serve. That Monday morning conversation was a pivotal moment for me: I realized not only that there was a direct connection between hunger and a child’s ability to be present and ready to learn, but that I was in a position to provide resources to help.

Barriers to learning

Eighty-eight percent of the student population at Valley View was eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, so I knew that while I had one child sitting in front of me who was experiencing significant barriers to learning, I also had a school full of children who were possibly struggling with similar issues. This particular third-grade boy was sent to me by his teacher, but I knew that for the larger community, I had to be proactive about addressing these barriers, not wait for signs of disengagement.

Obviously, as educators, it is not our job to solve world hunger, but when it comes to a barrier to learning, it is our job to help students arrive in school each day ready to learn. And this is a nationwide issue: research has shown that 85% of principals have students who are coming to school hungry; this percentage becomes 90% in high-poverty schools.

Meeting the need

At Valley View, we formed a partnership with a local church that ran a food shelf. The church had relationships with suppliers, and agreed to send a portion of their food to Valley View. We knew it was important to try to provide food that was appropriate for our school population, so we made sure we had the hominy, corn and beans that our students would eat. We asked our Muslim and Hispanic families what they want. After doing our due diligence, we worked with the church to come up with meals that a kid could put together without much prep or cooking.

Next, we set up a repository by the school kitchen, where kids could go and pick up food that was packed in backpacks, ready to go. We had the Bloomington health department inspect the pantry so that we knew this service was up to code and approved at every level.

We shared this with the school community by talking to families at our Family Academy. It was important to us to make sure that making the choice to use the food closet was one that a family would make among themselves. As a school, we provided the opportunity, but also wanted to be discreet and respectful of our families’ needs.

In terms of assessing the success of the program, our best method was to take inventory of how much food was going out each week. There were times when it was gangbusters, and times when it was slow. We analyzed patterns to identify peak times, and found that the need was greatest on Fridays and just before holidays, when kids would be out of school for extended periods of time.

A scalable model

After Valley View’s program had been in place for some time, other schools that were experiencing similar issues set up their own programs. We saw that hunger was an issue across Bloomington, regardless of neighborhood. At that point I had just begun to move to the district office for Bloomington Public Schools, and we knew we needed to make sure that all sites were following the appropriate steps to follow insurance and health code approvals. 

So we brought all ten of our elementary schools together in order to ensure each site was adhering to the same parameters, and that everyone was protected. We also wanted to streamline procedures, and centralize our relationships with community partners we were working with. As a group, we brought in faith-based organizations that were able to supply food and backpacks, and help with menus. We’ve worked closely with The Sheridan Story and Volunteers Enlisted to Help People (VEAP) to accomplish our goals.

What’s next

We are working within the state’s new wellness policy. We have refined our beliefs and improved our health practices in Bloomington schools. The scope of the policy extends beyond the food closet to impact our practices on many different levels—for example, we’re considering alternatives to the practice of bringing in cupcakes to celebrate birthdays. In this coming year, we will implement our new thinking, which will have an impact on how we deliver food in the upcoming school year.

If you’re wondering about the third grader I mentioned earlier, it is a hard truth of this work that we don’t always have a neat ending to every story. That particular student moved out of our district—a migratory existence is the reality for much of our student population. As an educator, my mission is to look within my school community and identify the barriers to learning that are particular to the students I serve. Then I can work with community partners to address their needs. As I said before, I can’t solve world hunger, but I can help our students arrive each day, ready to learn.

Photo via Kirinohana