Hungry children at higher risk of poor school performance

School breakfast programs and innovative supplemental feeding programs help reduce childhood hunger, a problem teachers report is increasing.

According to a survey conducted by Share Our Strength, No Kid Hungry, childhood hunger remains a serious issue for public schools. The survey found six in 10 K-8 public school teachers say that students regularly come to school hungry because they are not getting enough to eat at home. Teachers surveyed also said 80 percent of students are coming to school hungry one or more times each week. A majority of teachers say most or a lot of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition and a majority of teachers who see hunger as a problem believe that the problem is growing.

Dr. Howard Taras, professor of pediatrics at the University of California – San Diego, writes in the Journal of School Health, “In 2 of the 3 studies conducted in the United States, food insufficiency was associated with significantly poorer cognitive functioning, decreased school attendance, or diminished academic achievement.”

The National School Lunch Program has been providing school lunches since 1947 and school breakfast programs have been offered in a variety of ways since 1966. The Children, Youth and Families Education and Research Network reports: “The benefits of school breakfast programs are many. A research analysis from Harvard found that students who participate in school breakfast programs have: improved attendance and less tardiness; better concentration, alertness and energy in school; better overall academic performance; better comprehension, learning and memory; and higher math, reading and standardized test scores.”

In addition to school meals, innovative school-based food pantries have been established in more than 400 locations nationally as reported by Feeding America. Food pantries that serve families with children provide emergency food right on the school campus. Supplemental backpack programs, where “child-friendly” foods are sent home with students to be consumed during non-school times, help reduce childhood hunger and are increasingly popular with students, teachers and parents. Michigan State University Extension has programs such as Cooking Matters that empowers families at risk of hunger in how to prepare healthy meals on a small budget.

While school meals, pantries and supplemental feeding programs don’t solve the root causes of childhood hunger, they are nourishing children so that they are better able to perform in school during critical times in their social, physical and intellectual development.