Children shouldn’t worry about being hungry in school

Last fall, my nine-year-old daughter asked me to buy some extra lunch items at the grocery store because she and a friend of hers were going to take turns bringing in food for a classmate who couldn’t afford to purchase lunch at school. I was reminded of this conversation last week, when the school committee in my city voted to no longer deny middle- and high-school students lunch if they had a negative balance on their meal accounts.

Although this practice had been in place for elementary schools, until last week middle- and high-school students were told if they owed a certain amount of money they could not receive lunch.  While I commend this change in policy, I am distressed by the fact that there were youth in my city who had been going without lunch on a regular basis.  I am also distressed at the likelihood that these same youth may have felt embarrassed or ashamed at being denied a meal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 12.3 percent of our country’s households do not have enough food (2016 data).  This impacts 1 in 6 children.  The National School Lunch Program has approached this issue by providing funds to support the cost of free and reduced lunch at schools across the country.  Eligibility for this program is based on household income:  families at or below 130 percent of the poverty level ($31,980 for a family of four) qualify for free school meals; reduced-cost meals are available for families at 130 to 185 percent of the poverty level ($45,510 for a family of four).  As the recent decision of the school committee in my city reveals, however, there are children and youth who may not qualify for free or reduced school meals, but they may still not be able to afford to purchase them.  Thus, even in an ideal situation in which every student who was eligible for free or reduced cost meals applied for these benefits and received them, there would still be students going hungry at our nation’s schools. This is something I can’t stop thinking about.  This is something I want you to think about.

Hunger has a significant impact on the well-being of children and youth:  they are more prone to illness; they are more likely to have difficulties learning; they may experience anxiety and/or depression.  In addition, they may feel ashamed each day at school when they don’t have a meal, and their peers do.  When my daughter shared her plan to provide lunch for her classmate, I felt proud of her for wanting to help a friend; however, I knew that her plan really wasn’t the solution.  Providing all children and youth with access to meals at school is a larger issue that requires a system-level response.  A city or town’s decision to provide every child with a meal, regardless of their ability to pay, is an example of such a response.  Unfortunately, in my home state of Massachusetts, roughly 18 percent of schools have policies in place that prevent staff from providing meals to children who cannot pay.  I imagine Massachusetts is not the only state with such policies.

What can we do in our communities to change policies and practices to ensure every child has a meal at school, regardless of ability to pay?

1. Check the current policy of your city or town and learn whether all students in your community have access to meals at school;

2. Reach out to the school committee of your city or town to identify whether current policies supporting meals for all students are sustainable. Federal funds support free and reduced meals for students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program.  With some exceptions for low-income areas, local communities pay for meals for students who don’t qualify.  How does your school system support this cost? Can your school system continue to support this expense?

3. Support local initiatives to fund school meals for children and youth in need. Is there a clear and easy process for individuals in your community to donate funds for school meals for children with food insecurity?

At an individual level, what can we, as health care providers, do to address youth hunger?

1. Routinely ask about issues of food insecurity at appointments. Parents might not disclose this information if you do not ask.

2. Be knowledgeable about the policies of the schools in the communities in which you practice and be prepared to refer parents to a specific point person or office in their school system if they need support.

3. Keep information about food insecurity and resources available in your waiting room. This not only provides patients/clients with valuable information, but also sends the message that you want to talk about this issue.

I believe that children and youth should not have to worry about being hungry while they are in school.  I believe each child should be provided with a meal at school, regardless of ability to pay.  If this is something you believe as well, take a few moments out of your day to take action.  Have an impact on this important issue.  #NotHungryAtSchool.

Melinda Stoops is a psychologist and can be reached on Twitter @MelindaStoops.

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