Successful Students

While at Howard Roosa Elementary School, school leaders decided to get breakfast out of the cafeteria and into the classroom in an effort to ensure every student started the school day with a nutritious breakfast. Photo: Staci Maiers

More Hungry Kids, Greater Need for School Meals

As partisan clashes in Congress continue to delay decisions on measures that would provide some relief for middle class and poor Americans, a growing number of families are relying on free and reduced-price meals to prevent their children from going hungry.

The numbers paint a distressing picture: A New York Times analysis of Department of Agriculture data reveals a 17 percent increase in the number of students qualifying for subsidized lunches, with 11 states reporting a shocking 25 percent jump. Census figures show the number of people living in poverty reached an all-time high and the number of children considered poor rose by 1 million in 2010. And a new report from the Food Research and Action Center shows a dramatic drop in food spending—especially among black and Hispanic families—as more Americans face unemployment or underemployment.

The toll it takes on students is clear to educators.

“When kids come to school hungry, you can tell,” said Doreen Raftery, who saw all too many students struggle through the school day on an empty stomach during her years working as a paraprofessional in New York City public schools. “They can’t concentrate, they can’t perform.”

Research supports her observations. Students who miss meals have more behavior problems and are more likely to fail math, arrive late at school, miss days entirely and repeat a grade.

Schools’ ability to respond to this result of the economic crisis would have been diminished if the bipartisan Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act had not been signed into law by President Obama a year ago, after educators and other child advocates across the country spoke up in favor of its passage. That measure expanded the reach of the National School Lunch and School Breakfast program by 115,000 students and improved the nutritional value of school breakfasts, lunches and other food options available in schools. At NEA’s urging, the bill also provided professional development funds for food service workers to learn new ways to prepare the most nutritious meals possible with available resources.

But even when students qualify for free meals, they don’t always get them: on average, less than half of children eligible for subsidized breakfast are eating it. Lower-income students with fewer transportation options are less likely to get to school early enough to take advantage of breakfast programs. Another possible barrier is students themselves—even in communities with widespread poverty, there’s a stigma attached to being seen eating in the cafeteria before school.

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