Does Childhood Hunger Justify Food in the Classroom?

A reader named Sheri left a thought-provoking comment on yesterday’s post in which I asked TLT’ers to chime in on a parent’s question about eliminating food in the classroom.  Sheri pointed out that many kids come from food insecure households and therefore my desire to eliminate all food from the classroom (articulated most succinctly in my “Food in the Classroom Manifesto“) might be misguided.

Here’s what Sheri wrote:

I understand that some may be frustrated with food in the classroom, however we need to consider that for many, that food may be the only food they receive in a day. I am a mom and don’t agree with the junk food in the classroom either – my child has multiple food allergies, so I have spoken with our teachers about making the party sign-up sheets start off with a list of healthy options. I also educate about label reading and the dangers of processed ingredients.

But there is often other things to consider before you begin a campaign to stop ALL food in the classroom.

Before you begin a crowdsourcing campaign, I would dig deeper in your communities and find some answers (this may be difficult, but worth the trouble).

Did you know?:
Food Insecurity Facts (

– 16.7 million children lived in food insecure households in 2011.[i]
– 20% or more of the child population in 36 states and D.C. lived in food insecure households in 2010. The District of Columbia (30.7%) and Oregon (29.0%) had the highest rates of children in households without consistent access to food.[ii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the highest rate of food insecure children under 18 are the District of Columbia, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico, & Florida.[iii]
– In 2010, the top five states with the lowest rate of food insecure children under 18 are North Dakota, New Hampshire, Virginia, Minnesota, & Massachusetts. [iv]

There was a recent article that addresses the frustrations and push back that breakfast in the classroom is receiving (

If you would like to better understand the full scope of the issue, perhaps a family movie (

And here is my reply to Sheri.  After you read it, please feel free to jump in with a comment of your own on this important question.


Thanks for all of this valuable information

You may be a new Lunch Tray reader, but childhood hunger is a cause close to my heart, and one about which I write often here on TLT (see the many links below). Indeed, just recently I was a “Food Blogger for Hunger” in association with A Place at the Table, the excellent documentary film you cite above.

Here in Houston, over 80% of our students rely on free or reduced price federal school meals and it was precisely that issue of economic dependency which led to my interest in school food reform in the first place — and to the inception of this blog back in 2010.  It was also the issue that motivated my successful campaign against “pink slime” in school food ground beef last year.  And childhood hunger is the reason why I’ve always been a supporter of breakfast-in-the-classroom programs even though they can be, as you note, quite controversial — as such a program was here in Houston ISD when it was first instituted.

But I think it’s very important to make a distinction between “food in the cafeteria” and “food in the classroom.” The former is federally regulated and, thanks to the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in late 2010, great strides have been made in the nutritional profile of school meals. While we still have a lot of work to do in terms of reducing schools’ reliance on highly processed foods, children dependent on the federal lunch and breakfast programs (as well as after-school snack and even school supper programs) can and do have access to nutritionally balanced meals each and every school day (and throughout the summer where summer meals are offered.) That access is critical in an age in which so many kids, as you note, live in food-insecure households.

Food in the classroom, however, is another story.  This food tends to fall into three categories: food brought in for classroom celebrations; the use of food by teachers as a teaching tool or manipulative; and food handed out by teachers or principals as a reward for good behavior or academic performance.

In the case of classroom parties, an excellent 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, co-authored by Marion Nestle, found that the majority of items offered for class celebrations were “low-nutrient, energy-dense foods” such as cake, fruit punch, ice cream, Doritos, cheese puffs, and potato chips.  And while I know of no academic studies looking at the latter two categories of classroom food, in my experience (and in the reported experience of my readers), food used as a teaching tool and as a reward also almost always falls into the “junk food” category.

For example, I’ll never forget the day my daughter told me about an elementary school science lesson which replicated the circulatory system by using corn syrup for plasma, red hots for platelets and another candy — I think white Tic Tacs — for white blood cells. After mixing up this concoction for demonstration purposes, all the children were given a cup of it to eat.  Lovely.

Similarly, in prior TLT posts you can read all about how my daughter, now in middle school, was last year regularly handed 12 oz cans of Coke and full-sized packages of gummi bears for good performance in a language class, and how my son was given a jumbo sized Hershey bar for winning a school lottery. Those are just two instances of the many, many times in which my kids have been handed out junk food by a teacher as a reward.

Here’s my point:  I think we can all agree that even children beset by childhood hunger should not be consuming empty calories.  In fact, to the extent children are being fed junk food in the classroom, it’s likely they will then consume less of the nutritionally balanced, taxpayer-subsidized meal offered in the lunch room.  That’s not so critical for kids like mine, who can make up any nutritional gaps at home, but it’s quite detrimental for kids who don’t come from homes well-stocked with healthful food.

So given the almost uniformly poor nutritional quality of food in the classroom, I reject the notion that childhood hunger justifies its use.

That said, there certainly are instances of teachers in impoverished areas bringing nutritious food into their classrooms to feed hungry students, often paying for this food out of their own pocket. That’s entirely different, of course, though it still raises other concerns about classroom food, such as allergy issues.  Similarly, those offerings aren’t subject to any kind of oversight, so we’re relying on a particular teacher’s definition of “healthful food” – one with which we might not all agree.  I also believe that if hungry children have access to school breakfast, school lunch, and after-school snack (if not also supper, as we have here in Houston at some particularly impoverished schools), then even that sort of food in the classroom might not be necessary.

Let me know what you think about all this, and I hope other TLT readers will chime in as well on this important question.

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  1. Teri says

    Perfect response, I agree completely. I don’t want any child to go hungry, but I don’t want any child to die from food allergies. Keeping food to cafeterias is the way to go, which also has the added benefit of keeping junk food out of the classroom, as you so astutely pointed out.

  2. stef says

    Nutritious food, served in the cafeteria makes sense. I’ve never thought that The Lunch Tray was advocating against nutritious food served in the cafeteria or for breakfast or lunch. In fact, she is a huge advocate for that.

    Food doesn’t need to be served or used in the classroom…for rewards, as manipulatives, for birthday treats, for holidays, for any random day. I’m in agreement with The Lunch Tray on that issue and think that there are many ways to celebrate safely for all kids to be included and with healthy bodies in mind.

  3. Susan S. says

    Currently in a disagreement with my child’s preschool teachers over offering ice cream as a reward for “dry pants” in the classroom. I’m amazed at how they justify it. I wholeheartedly agree with only offering nutritious foods in the classroom and making any sweets an occasional treat.

  4. says

    Unless it’s an in-classroom lunch (we do have those), there isn’t any reason for food to be in the classroom, or on the playground, for that matter. All year, my first grader’s class has had a snack at 9 AM, usually consumed on the playground. But their lunch is scheduled at 10:30 AM. I want my child to be hungry at lunch time. I want him to eat the lunch he buys. I don’t send a morning snack. We imagine our children to be hungry all the time. From their infancy, we take any sign of discomfort to be a sign that the baby needs to eat. And even though that’s probably realistic for a nursing infant, we seem to have carried that through to convenient car food, snacks at all hours, and the like. My ten year old asked me just yesterday to pack more in his lunch bag for lunch because, as he says, “I’m eating too much in the afternoon and then I don’t want to eat dinner.” More food at lunch, it is.

    While I have no problem recognizing that food scarcity is a real issue facing a huge number of students, I concur with Bettina that the cafeteria is a better venue for getting nutritional food to those students.

    • says

      I would add one more exception to this rule: children with diabetes, who need some sort of snack in order to avoid going hypoglycemic. Such exceptions are normally handled in cooperation with the child’s doctor and the school administration staff.


    • says

      Honestly, the “lunch at 10:30” thing is a problem I think needs to be addressed. It is due to overcrowding in schools and schools placing efficiency before all else.

      When I was in high school I was one year scheduled for such an early lunch and it was in my opinion ridiculous, and detrimental to my health. If I have breakfast at 6:30 or 7, get to school at 8, I am not hungry for lunch at 10:30. But that was the only opportunity I had to eat lunch: by the time I *was* hungry at noon, I had no opportunity to eat until around 4pm, by which time I was famished and had crashing blood sugar.

      Meals in school need to be scheduled based on what is best for kids, not on what is convenient for school business.

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