No one wants a child to go hungry, but in the world’s wealthiest nation, hunger is a very real problem in the lives of students living in poverty. As a public school educator working with some of New Orlean’s most impoverished students, I get a pit in my stomach every time a student nudges me to make sure they’re a slated recipient for the annual holiday food drive I organize.
For most families, the holidays are a time of celebration when favorite foods abound and everyone is filled with the spirit of generosity. But for many mothers and children in poverty, being away from school bodes terrifying uncertainty. Many mothers find the holidays terrifying because they have no idea where their child's next meal will come from during the break.
Today I am a master teacher who monitors and evaluates classroom instruction. But as a child who grew up in poverty, in the Inner City of New Orleans, I know first-hand what it means to be the student for whom the holidays present a time of strife.
I knew the truth about Santa at a very young age. I did not wait for Santa to come in December, I waited for Tax season to come in January. I can recall two holidays that I actually received what was on my “Santa List”. Once I opened a pair of Eastland shoes for school, which were all the rage at the time; another year I got a cool cassette player. This was our reality because it was more important to pay bills and put food on the table.
My story is just a drop in the bucket and pales in comparison to the thousands of students living in poverty that I’ve encountered through my work over the years. Thirty million students rely on school lunch and 14 million rely on schools for breakfast too. For many of these students, dinner is uncertain and meals at school are the healthiest (and sometimes the only) meal they will get on a given day.
The effects of hunger transcend the actual pain felt in one’s stomach. Hunger can literally test the limits of a child’s ability to perform successfully as a student. These students are extremely insecure about facing the extended period without the breakfast and lunch that the public schools provide. They become distracted, emotionally erratic and stressed. In the days and weeks leading up to the holiday, their behavior can become more erratic and disruptive in the classroom. It breaks my heart because I am constantly reminded of my past and my friends who were in the same predicament.
To a lesser extent, even my own kids have been there. Early in my career as a classroom teacher and mother of two, I worked afterschool and summer programs for extra cash, and I still relied on food stamps, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax credits to make ends meet. My kids, like me as a child, would often have to wait until tax season for school supplies and Christmas gifts.
Almost every hard-working person I know lives very modestly, paycheck to paycheck, and in constant fear, because the monster of poverty is always around the corner or on their heels, haunting them, threatening to devour any opportunity to overcome. While there remains no simple solution to addressing childhood hunger, there are options that require action at all levels of government.
Communities can turn to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s At-Risk After School Meals program which seeks to feed students over weekends and during the holidays. Often prepared in the cafeterias of area hospitals, these programs are typically administered via civil institutions like public libraries and community centers and it is up to local community members to work hand-in-hand with administrators to set up successful After School Meals programs.
Another, perhaps simpler, solution would be for the USDA to acknowledge the stress this puts on parents living in poverty and expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by putting extra money on parents’ electronic benefits card to account for the days when a student cannot be fed at school.
Our federal lawmakers concerned with students going hungry might also consider supporting the Weekends Without Hunger Act [H.R. 7185] which aims to “create a five-year pilot program for schools and food banks to offer food to eligible school children on weekends, during the summer and over holiday breaks.”
Right now there’s no foreseeable cure-all when it comes to eradicating poverty, but one thing is certain: If we’re not doing anything to help, we’re not doing our part. So, as we thank our loved ones for our presents and dig into another roasted turkey, let’s take a moment this holiday season to acknowledge the millions of less fortunate children and let’s promise to make their lives better.
Qiana Torregano is a Master Teacher / Instructional Coach for Algiers Charter Schools in New Orleans.