From making new friends to making it to school on time, students have plenty to worry about on a day-to-day basis.
One thing they shouldn’t have to worry about is getting enough to eat. But according to the most recent data, approximately one in five children in Central Florida is living with food insecurity. That means they and their families may not know where their next meal will come from.
For some kids, it really is a matter of not having enough food at home. They may rely on free and reduced lunch at school to get through the day or find excuses to stay over at a friend’s house for dinner. Others may not technically be “missing meals” but instead don’t get enough healthy options to fuel their bodies, which can impact achievement in the long run.
According to Feeding America, children from food-insecure families are likely to have lower math scores and are more likely to repeat a grade. That’s no surprise: It’s hard to focus on fractions when you’re hearing a rumble in your stomach during class.
Hunger is also linked to chronic health problems throughout life, including hypertension, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In areas where food is scarce or money is tight, fresh produce is one of the first items crossed off a shopping list. After all, healthy ingredients are more expensive overall, they take more effort to plan and prepare, and they’re more likely to spoil and go to waste than highly processed foods.
It’s a serious problem, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Even when food assistance is available, students may not know about it — or they may think they don’t qualify. Social stigma can also be a big stumbling block, especially for older children and teens. If they must fill out a form, go to a different building, or approach a school administrator to get access to help, they probably won’t.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a solution. The best strategy is to keep it low-pressure and low-profile. Focus on establishing a positive relationship with the student first. Then put the student in touch with programs in your area designed to take the stigma out of food assistance.
If we can connect kids with healthy food in school clubs and classrooms, without requiring proof of financial difficulty or an opt-in form, that removes some of the barriers to access. Another strategy is giving kids a say in the resources designed to help them. Some Florida schools are piloting open-access pantries run “by students, for students” as part of a credited class.
Other initiatives are looking at quality of food, and not just quantity. At “Fresh Market” programs, schools partner with local organizations to host after-school farmers market-style events where kids can try unfamiliar fruits and vegetables — and take some home for dinner.
There may be a long road ahead when it comes to solving school hunger, but it starts by making food access fun, approachable and open to everyone. To learn more about Second Harvest’s campaigns to leave no child hungry — and how you can help — visit www.FeedHopeNow.org.
ELIZABETH SANTIAGO is the school partnerships program manager at Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.