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How Hunger Hurts Learning: Schools Seek to Feed Students’ Tummies and Minds

The list of ways hunger can affect a child’s health is a long one. Chronic health issues like asthma, behavioral issues like anxiety and social issues like bullying are just a part of that list.

Nan Evans has seen children sneak food in their pockets and fight over a piece of breakfast food.

“When they’re hungry, they’re fidgety,” said Evans, principal of Kent Hills Elementary School in Grand Rapids. “They can’t focus. Getting mad and making trouble from being hungry can be how they express anger in inappropriate ways.”

Kent Hills is far from alone in dealing with the problem of hungry and undernourished children. According to Kids Food Basket, an agency that provides students with meals, more than 30,000 area children — that’s about 20 percent of the children in West Michigan — are at risk of hunger.

Studies have shown hungry children living in poverty are at high risk for chronic health conditions such as asthma and frequent oral health problems; more likely to require hospitalization than children who eat regular meals; and more prone to behavioral issues and social difficulties such as aggression, hyperactivity and irritability. They are six times more likely “to be in less than optimal health, experiencing a wide variety of illnesses and injuries” compared with children from higher income families, according to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

When it comes to schooling, hunger and malnutrition can hurt students’ achievement in a number of ways, educators and health officials say.

“It is important that they ingest important nutrients for optimal functioning in school,” said Stephanie Painter, director of Spectrum Health’s School Health Advocacy Program.

“We know nutrition is important because research has demonstrated that if children lack food, they are more likely to be in special education, have behavior or conduct disorders, be obese because of food insecurity, be at risk for psychiatric problems, be unable to focus or pay attention, and also are at risk for disease because they are anemic.”

A Pantry at School

Kent Hills is one of several area schools taking a direct approach to student hunger. It works with Feeding America West Michigan to hold a mobile pantry the third Wednesday of every month.

A semitrailer full of donated food backed up to one of the school’s double doors on a pantry day earlier this year. Volunteers unloaded the food onto rectangular tables filling the hallway. Soon, the tables were packed with potatoes, apples, bread, crackers, desserts, yogurt and sausage to be distributed to the 90-plus people in line.

One of the people in line was Rhonda Hawkins. Her grandson attends the school, and she lives with him, her dad and daughter. The food she picks up at the mobile pantry will help them a lot, she said.

“We can go a few weeks with potatoes and stuff,” Hawkins said. What they can’t do is go to the cupboard and wolf down as many Pop Tarts as they want. The food they get is managed carefully to go as far as it can.

Hawkins’ daughter, Keli, was standing in line with her. The food they pick up at the mobile pantry is used “pretty much with every meal or snack,” Keli said. “If we have extra potatoes, we give it to the elderly couple across the street.”

Cassandra Butler was in line with two teenagers who didn’t want to be named. “This is good when people are low-income and trying to make ends meet,” Butler said. “I got cut off my food stamps after Christmas. You do what you have to do when it comes down to eating.”

Feeding AmericaWest Michigan is working on expanding mobile pantries like these, which have also visited Dickinson Elementary, three Grand Rapids high schools and North and West Godwin elementaries this year. The agency supplies nearly 1,200 food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters in 40 counties in West Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

How Food Can Change Things

Kids Food Basket is another local organization seeking to help with children’s hunger. It sends sack suppers home with more than 6,000 children in the greater Grand Rapids and Muskegon area.

When children do get enough food, the results can be wonderful. Julie VanGessel, program manager for the Kids Food Basket Kids Helping Kids program in Grand Rapids, has seen it happen.

She remembers watching a class once and complimenting the teacher on what a great group of students she had. The teacher told her the class used to be difficult before they realized the students were hungry from lack of nutritious food. When a way was found to provide them with more food, their behavior, attendance and test scores all improved.

“It’s because they’re not hungry,” VanGessel said.

Families faced with hunger often skip meals and buy cheaper, less nourishing food because that’s all they can afford, said Emma Garcia, hunger response director for Access of West Michigan, a network of food pantries and anti-poverty programs.

Eating the empty calories of cheap foods like macaroni and cheese can lead to health problems including obesity and diabetes, Garcia said. That’s why organizations like hers work to make sure the food they give out is nutritious and includes the five food groups. Providing families with food that is “just calories doesn’t do them justice,” she said.

VanGessel agreed, saying, “It robs kids of their energy and their health.”

Inside the sack supper Kids Food Basket sends home with students is a meat or cheese sandwich or a tortilla roll-up for protein; one serving each of a fresh fruit and vegetable; a fruit juice box; and two healthy snacks like a granola bar or string cheese. Providing such balanced meals “helps kids stay focused, get their homework done, and stay on track with other children,” asserts the agency’s website.

Too Long Between Meals

Another issue agencies are trying to solve is the time gap some children face between meals. VanGessel tells of a mother working two part-time jobs, raising two daughters on a fixed income and going to college. When the mother noticed her kindergartner was coming home daily with headaches and struggling with homework, she thought it was a medical problem. Her child’s health issues actually stemmed from the many hours without food between getting her free lunch at school and eating dinner at home.

“They get breakfast and lunch at school, but if mom works until 7 p.m. and the meal comes at 8 p.m, and the last food they had was lunch at 10:30 a.m., it’s a huge gap of time,” VanGessel said.

“Sack suppers became a saving grace for this family,” she added. “Not only did the young student’s hunger headaches disappear, but she was back to her playful self, with energy to complete her homework assignments.”


Feeding America West Michigan

Kids Food Basket

Access of West Michigan

American Psychological Association: Effects of Poverty Hunger and Homelessness on Children and Youth

Poverty and Potential: Out of School Factors and School Sucesses

Full Series: The Burden of Poverty: A Backpack of Heartache

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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