A reader recently wrote a comment which I imagine reflects the views of a lot of people:
I’m confused about the goals of the CNA [Child Nutrition Act, the legislation governing school breakfast and lunch, among other programs]. Why do we need to increase participation in school meal programs? When these programs were first introduced, malnutrition and hunger were significant issues in our country. . . . Back then, teachers could see hunger by observing how skinny the children are. These days, teachers in the same school districts observe how obesity is endemic in their students.
I would guess that in the US today, hunger is not a prevalent problem. Malnutrition might be, especially in certain demographics, and if that is the case then that should be the focus of federally mandated school meals. . . . . With our country’s culture of fast food and packaged processed meals, I find it hard to believe that even the most financially strapped community has children who are starving for calories.
Before I dove into the school lunch issue, I felt exactly the same way. One only has to look around a mall or theme park to know that we need to offer our kids fewer calories, not more, right?
As it turns out, though, both I and this reader were wrong. While childhood obesity is of course a real problem in America, so, too, is childhood hunger.
According to the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), “In 2008, nearly 16.7 million American children, or almost one in four, lived in food insecure households where their families faced a constant struggle against hunger” (emphasis mine). And, according to Share our Strength, the number of children going hungry has only increased from last year, perhaps an unsurprising finding given the growing economic insecurity many American families currently face. Indeed, according to FRAC, in 2008, the number of people (adults and children) falling in the “very low food security” category more than doubled since 2000.
Childhood hunger is also very much an issue in American schools. In Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, Janet Poppendieck interviews food service directors and principals around the country (and, surprisingly, not just in impoverished areas) who describe how the school breakfast line on a Monday morning (especially following a long weekend or a vacation) is always noticeably longer than other days of the week, as hungry children return to school and get what may be their first adequate meal in days. One director quoted in the book says, “You can tell the hungry kids when they come through a line . . . . They are not misbehaving, but they are just . . . it’s almost like they are grabbing the food. . . . [T]hey will start eating in line, that kind of thing.”
Moreover, hunger has been implicated in impaired cognitive function and lower test scores, student absenteeism, tardiness, visits to the school nurse and discipline problems. In a very real sense, hunger is an educational issue as much as it is a moral one.
As explained in my School Lunch FAQs and elsewhere, under the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program, schools are required to offer free and reduced price meals to any child who qualifies. So, theoretically, every one of those 16.7 million hungry children – if they’re of school age and enrolled in school that participates in the both programs – should be eating at least two free (or affordable) meals a day during the school week. But that’s far from the current reality. Many hungry children stay hungry, even in American schools.
Why is this so? The answers to this question are complex and too long to be addressed in a single blog post. I’ll take them on, one at a time, over the coming days. Stay tuned.