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Due to the high number of students receiving their nutritional intake from school meal programs, the U.S. Congress passed the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act.  The act increased school lunch funding by $0.06 per lunch with the hope that more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain products would be served. It also paved the way for pilot testing of After School Supper Programs in all 50 states.  As poverty continues to rise, advocates look to these programs and the effect they have on students. Advocates are arguing that school meal programs put kids in “an awful and embarrassing situation”. So, what is to be truly gained from these programs?

In 2016, the USDA reported that 14.6 million students in the United States participated in the federal School Breakfast Program (SBP) and served more than 2.4 billion breakfasts to students across the country.  The SBP and the National School Lunch Program were designed to alleviate some of the short-term hunger faced by children living below the national poverty line and some even believe that these programs will help to increase attendance and academic performance.   Instead, the only thing found to be beneficial about these programs is decreasing short-term hunger.

For younger students, meal times are full of demands from adults.  Students are told how much to eat, in what order they need to eat things, bribed to eat, rewarded by food, and told when to be finished eating.  Samantha Ramsay and her team observed lunch at several Head Start programs around the country and found that teachers were focusing more on time constraints and ensuring nutritional consumption and less on helping kids recognize what their body is saying to them about their level of hunger.  

[bctt tweet=”Researchers believe that what adults say to kids regarding food can have a lasting impact on self-regulation skills when it comes to eating” username=””]

Researchers believe that what adults say to kids regarding food can have a lasting impact on self-regulation skills when it comes to eating.  In the meantime, teachers are influenced by the fact that school meals can sometimes be the only meal a student eats that day. This puts pressure on the teachers to encourage kids to eat all of their food or start with their “healthy” food.  But, what it is doing is teaching kids to ignore what their body is telling them about how hungry or satisfied they are. Rasay and her colleagues recommend speaking to children in a way that gets them to think about what their body is saying.  Instead of asking, “are you done?” or “can you just try it?” teachers can ask questions like “are you full?” or “were you hungry?” This aids the child in recognizing bodily cues.

Cliona Mhurchu and her team researched the effects of SBP’s on elementary school children in New Zealand. They primarily wanted to know if offering an SBP would increase school attendance and if that would, in turn, impact “academic achievement, self-reported grades, sense of belonging at school, behavior, short-term hunger, breakfast habits and food security.”  Over the course of one school year, they had schools introduce SBP’s which offered all students free breakfast. For the public schools, breakfasts consisted of cereal, low-fat milk, spreads, a chocolate drink powder, milk powder, and sugar. For the private schools, breakfast was a cereal and low-fat milk. What they found is surprising. Instead of increasing school attendance, attendance gradually decreased over the course of the year which meant that the SBP had no impact on school attendance. As for achievement, self-reported grades, sense of belonging, etc. the SBP made no impact.  The only factor that was positively affected by the program was short-term hunger, which should come as no surprise.

While this is just one study and it was not conducted here in the United States, it would be interesting to see how successful these programs are here.  With over 14 million children eating free or reduced breakfast during the school year, it makes one wonder how those numbers would change and what impact it would have if there were some other motivation to attend school.  We have to get the students there in order for them to benefit from programs like the SBP (School Breakfast Program) and NSLP (National School Lunch Program). Some of the issues lie in the stigma that comes with participating in such programs. How the school handles the free status of meals can contribute to the feeling of shame and embarrassment that students feel when they do accept the help they desperately need.  It can become a source of ridicule and bullying if not kept confidential.

For example, at Conway High School in Arkansas, the art teacher has started to tackle this issue.  In her classroom, she has created a food pantry stocked with snacks and easy to cook foods that students can take and not feel judged.5 The embarrassment has been removed by allowing any student, regardless of need or poverty level, to take food from it.  Sometimes as many as 204 students will grab a snack from the closet and no one says a word because they are all getting what they need together. If you go to the local supermarket, there is a bin where people can donate to this project as they shop.

One of the ways that Mhurchu and her team evaluated the effectiveness of an SBP was by making breakfast available and free to all students who attended the schools.  This made everyone eating breakfast equals and removed any possibility of students making fun of others. It allows those who need the help to reach out for it without feeling ashamed of needing it.  While it may not be enough of a motivator to keep some kids in school, it would give the kids that are attending an opportunity to eat.

The School Breakfast Program and National School Lunch Program and valuable for students in need.  However, they alone are not enough of a motivator to keep low-income kids in school and ensure that they are getting the nutrients they need each day.  If teachers could focus on how to remove the stigma attached to needing assistance, more kids may feel comfortable accepting the help they might need when it comes to food.  It is important that we work to remove the labels that society places on those receiving assistance. Small acts in our classroom and a change in the way we talk to kids during meal times can help push us in a more positive direction.  These programs do help with short-term hunger needs. But if kids are embarrassed to receive free meals at school, then what good is it actually doing? Something as small as putting some communal snacks in a classroom closet can encourage those that truly need it to come forward.  It’s an easy way for the community to get involved and creates a safe space for those who may not feel comfortable reaching out. As Winston Churchill said, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job.” The tools for helping fight student hunger are there, all we need to do is figure out how to use them.   


Emily Madden graduated from the North American Montessori Center in 2011 with her International Montessori...

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