Why Hungry Kids Sometimes Still Go Hungry in American Schools

by Bettina Elias Siegel on November 30, 2010

A reader recently sent me a Reuters article describing a study from Canada which demonstrates (not surprisingly) that adolescents from food insecure households perform better academically and have better behavior in school when the schools provide meal assistance.

The study reminded me that way back in July (and then again in August!), I promised to explain how it is that hungry children in American schools often still go hungry — and how the Obama administration is trying to increase their participation in school food programs.  Under the heading “better late than never,” here’s my post on that subject.

Some children who are eligible for free/reduced price meals choose not to take advantage of the program because of the stigma attached to such meals, especially when there’s an “a la carte” line in the same lunchroom offering such “cool” foods as Papa John’s pizza and fruit slushies.  That’s a critically important topic worthy of separate examination, and I’ve discussed it here previously (“A La Carte – A World Apart?”).

But as Janet Poppendieck discusses in Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, many kids who qualify for free/reduced price meals never get those benefits in the first place (regardless of whether they then use them to get the “uncool” meal).  She cites four major obstacles to children’s participation in the free/reduced price meal program:

Application:  Parents of hungry children may not always apply for free/reduced lunch.  The reasons can include being unaware of the program; feeling a sense of stigma at having to rely on government assistance; finding the forms too daunting to fill out, especially in the case of new immigrants; or a (misplaced) fear of the form being sent to immigration authorities.

Certification: Innumerable errors can (and do) occur in the processing of applications by schools which can result in a child never getting certified by the program, even if a parent has tried to apply.

Verification:  A subset of applications will be selected for random verification, in which the parent must provide documentation of household size and income.  This can be daunting for many parents, including the new immigrant or the parent who is paid in cash at work (such as a cleaning lady or nanny).  According to 2002 data cited by Poppendieck, 50% of those parents from whom documentation was sought simply didn’t respond and their child’s meal benefits were terminated.

Price:  Parents who don’t qualify for free meals may be able to receive reduced price meals for their children.  However, the reduced price can still be unaffordable to a family in that income category. Poppendieck lays this out well in her book, showing how, after normal household expenses, such a family could struggle to come up with the reduced price each day, five days a week, for their children.

The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, up for a vote as early as today, would attempt to fix some of these problems through a variety of means, including allowing schools in high-poverty areas to offer free meals to all students without any paperwork, making foster children automatically eligible for free meals, and giving incentives to states that improve their certification rates.

Until we fix this problem, however, we’re confronted with the sad paradox of hungry kids enrolled in schools offering food, yet still going hungry.  And as the study cited above makes clear, the resulting consequences — poor academic performance, behavior problems and school absenteeism — hurt us all in the long run.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Megan (@MissHealth) November 30, 2010 at 11:34 am

Let’s hope The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 passes. It’s certainly not what I was hoping for, but I guess it is something – which is better than nothing.

Meanwhile, DC is considering axing the funding for its newly passed Healthy Schools Act, which would have made breakfast served in class a requirement for schools with high poverty.

You have to wonder sometimes how it is even possible that making sure our nation’s children are getting at least two healthy, nutritious meals a day isn’t a top priority for our elected officials.

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bettina elias siegel December 1, 2010 at 10:18 am

Megan: I’ve been meaning to mention the DC cuts – thanks for reminding me. And yes, priorities seem sadly skewed. – Bettina

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Shira November 30, 2010 at 1:43 pm

In somewhat related news, the Food Safety Act (S510- with the Tester Amendment) passed today – so maybe our Senators are actually using their heads for once!

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