Hunger in Schools: ‘Kids don’t ask to be hungry’

DOVER — The Friday before winter break cardboard boxes were stacked in the corner outside classroom doors.

It was pajama day at W. Reily Brown Elementary School and children probably were starting to get excited about Christmas. Before they rushed out the door, though, some students stopped to pick up a bag from the box. It was carefully stocked with supplies for the holidays: cereal, fruit, shelf-stable milk and juice, cans of red beans and rice.

Hunger doesn’t take a break.

Allen Frear Elementary School achievement liaison Jamie Cohee of Camden coordinates the after school backpack program.

Allen Frear Elementary School achievement liaison Jamie Cohee of Camden coordinates the after school backpack program.

Out of the 415 students at Brown, 242 children participate in the Backpack Program, which provides food to children in need when school is not in session.

Across the state, close to 5,000 children participate in the Food Bank of Delaware program each week.

At Brown, a van from the Food Bank pulls up every Wednesday to drop off the meals, and students pick up a bag of food each Friday. The week before winter break, students took home food twice, on Thursday and Friday.

Parents can sign up at the beginning of the school year for the program; there is a list for each classroom and names are kept confidential.

The Backpack Program highlights a weighty reality: for needy children, schools aren’t just a place to learn. For some kids, school lunch may be the only weekday meals they eat.

Feeding the hungry

Food insecurity is harmful to all people, but it is particularly devastating to children.

Proper nutrition is critical to a child’s development — not having enough of the right kinds of food can have serious implications for a child’s physical and mental health and academic achievement.

“If you’re hungry, for any of us, it’s harder to focus. I think there are a lot of growth issues and psychological issues that impact children,” said Kim Turner, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Delaware.

At Communities in Schools, a nonprofit based in public schools throughout Kent and New Castle counties, directors have made addressing hunger a priority.

The organization works to identify students’ needs and meet them with community resources. Its philosophy is simple: Kids can’t succeed at school until their basic needs are met.

“Honestly, it’s about the ability to make academics a priority, and if your basic, basic needs are not met, that is the first thing you’re paying attention to,” said Trish Hermance, Kent
County regional director for Communities in Schools.

“Your priority is to find something to eat and it’s tough to focus. It’s tough to pay attention to the things in school that we want kids to pay attention to.”

In other words, students can’t solve quadratic equations an empty stomach.

Among other efforts, the nonprofit has helped set up food pantries in Woodbridge and Milford school districts, and gave families membership and transportation to a Community Supported Agriculture program, or CSA.

Through a grant, Communities in Schools also paid for a mobile food pantry — a refrigerated truck from the Food Bank of Delaware — to visit area schools.

Pantries at schools offer qualified families quick, private access to food, Ms. Hermance said.

“It’s a lot simpler to access than trying to access a community pantry,” she said. “They’re oftentimes in our school for a number of other reasons.”

If parents are in a meeting at school and they mention that hunger is an issue, staff can send them right down the hall, Ms. Hermance said.

Lake Forest East Elementary School kindergarten student D'naya Ellis, 6 enjoys her breakfast muffin in the classroom.

Lake Forest East Elementary School kindergarten student D’naya Ellis, 6 enjoys her breakfast muffin in the classroom.

At Lake Forest High School, a food pantry opened in 2012, in part of an old hallway closed off when the school was renovated. The pantry serves at-risk families throughout the district.

“We say, ‘Here’s a box. Take it home.’ They get to select what their families are going to eat,” said Karen Williams, the social studies teacher who runs the pantry. “A lot of the times, the students will do the shopping for their families, so we’ll send it home for them.”

Food for the pantry is provided by the Food Bank of Delaware and community donations, Ms. Williams said. In December, when demand is usually high, she said she helped about 15 families.

Asking for help

Ms. Williams said that she has seen a “dramatic incease” in usage since the pantry moved in. “Number one, more families know about it. And number two, more families are stepping forward and saying, ‘Hey, I need the help.’ ”

It’s not an easy thing to ask for help, she said.

Ms. Williams said that parents sometimes visit after school because they don’t want anyone to know they’re using the pantry.

“Sometimes the administration will call me and say, ‘Hey, we have this family coming, can you come in and help them?’ ” she said.

And although needy families may not think about schools as a place to find relief, school employees are often the first to find out there are hungry people in the house.

“They’ll say, ‘Hey, I heard a student say they hadn’t eaten dinner in three days,’” Ms. Williams said.

Jamie Cohee, who helps coordinate the Backpack Program at Allen Frear Elementary School, said that sometimes parents turn down help there as well.

“We do at times get parents saying ‘No thank you,’ even though I know they need it,” he said.

He turns the program into a club. The 54 children at the school take home their food as a prize for participating in activities. “You can only hide it so much on the way out from school,” he added.

A whole host of problems

As the Kent County services coordinator for Communities in Schools, Karen Harmon’s job is to offer families individual support. If a family with chronic needs is referred to her, she works with them on a daily basis.

Her position is paid through a three-year, $100,000 grant from the Potter Trust Fund, managed by the Cen-Del Foundation.

When people are discouraged, Ms. Harmon said, “just being there as a support system” is critical.

Sometimes, she finds herself buying bus passes or giving families rides to local food pantries.

Many families don’t have transportation, and if they live in a shelter with small children, just finding a way to get to the grocery store or a local pantry can be an insurmountable task.

Hungry children usually face poverty, parents with little free time, an unstable home — or all of the above.

“We have a lot of families who live in motels and just inconsistent places,” Ms. Hermance said.

Communities in Schools doesn’t just help feed children — it offers a variety of services designed to make parents more self-sufficient in the long-run, including job training and career planning, access to health clinics, housing assistance and financial counseling. They all play a part in hunger.

It can be frustrating, though. “We struggle to figure out how to consistently provide help,” Ms. Hermance said.

Few programs offer consistent nutrition, she said. Sometimes parents can only access resources like pantries a set number of times each month.

“I know we want to teach people to be self-sufficient, but if they find themselves in a difficult situation, say, for a couple of months, it’s tough to be able to go to a mobile food pantry (just) once a month.

“Every family we’ve encountered to date is doing the absolute best they can,” Ms. Hermance said. But sometimes they still need the extra help, she said.

Support programs

For low-income families, lunch may be the only meal their children eat.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public and nonprofit private schools and residential child care institutions. Through the program, children who qualify can receive reduced-price or free lunches each school day.

Even then, some students fall through the gaps.

Parents sometimes only just miss the income qualification for help, or can barely scrape together even the daily 40 cents for a reduced-price meal. Some families don’t apply for free or reduced-price meals at school due to shame.

In high-needs schools, the Community Eligibility Provision is a new alternative to collecting, approving and verifying eligibility applications.

If at least 40 percent of a student population are identified as eligible for benefits, the entire school qualifies for free meals. This year, 92 schools are participating in the Community
Eligibility Program, including Capital School District.

District nutrition supervisor James Trower said that he’s seen a marked increase in the number of students who eat lunch at school.

At Dover High School, an average of 800 to 900 students ate lunch there last year. In 2014, staff members reported that between 1,200 and 1,300 students eat school lunches, he said.

“They feel a little bit more comfortable in going ahead and getting lunch, not worrying about how they’ll eat,” Mr. Trower said.

Mr. Trower said at the beginning of the year parents called and asked how much lunch would cost so that they could budget.

This year, he could tell them it was free.

“Society has a tendency to be hard on a program that they don’t need,” he said. “If you were there and you were hungry, you’d want somebody to give you a hand-out too. And it’s not necesarrily a hand-out. It’s a hand up.”

There also has been a push to raise participation in school breakfast programs. Hungry students often skip breakfast thanks to bus schedules, late arrivals and long lines. And sometimes, eating breakfast at school carries a social stigma with it — kids may just be too embarrassed to single themselves out by heading to the cafeteria.

“Kids who start the day off with a breakfast, they pay attention more. They’re engaged. They score higher on tests,” Ms. Turner said.

Back at Brown Elementary on Webbs Lane, more than half of students eat breakfast there. Staff open the building early and make sure to get the kids off the bus in time to eat, Ms. Frampton said.

Other schools have found they can cut down on the hassle by serving breakfast in the classroom, Ms. Turner said.

After school, there is the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which is sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture and administered by the state Department of Education.

It provides funds for after-school nutrition programs that combine educational and enrichment activities with an evening snack or dinner. Volunteers at the Food Bank help prepare the meals.

To qualify for the program, sites must operate in areas where at least half of the children attending the nearest school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Ms. Turner said that the Food Bank distributed 221,928 meals last year through the after-school nutrition program.

The Summer Food Service Program helps bridge the gap after the school year ends. The program is also paid for by USDA and administered by the state Department of Education. Through the program, kids are offered daily access to breakfast, lunch and dinner, Ms. Turner said.

“There are definitely barriers for feeding kids over the summer. It’s not just a problem we’ve experienced here in Delaware,” Ms. Turner said. “It’s a problem nationally.”

Local sites include churches, neighborhoods, schools and summer camps.

The traditional model is sometimes a barrier, Ms. Turner said, because kids don’t want to eat on site. The Food Bank of Delaware was recently awarded money to pilot “grab and go” programs.

There were 34 Grab and Go sites last year in Delaware and 64 traditional sites.

“Kids don’t ask to be hungry”

According to the most recent data from Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, there were 7,270 hungry children in Kent County in 2012.

“Sometimes because we’re not seen as a major urban center, we don’t see the hunger and the homelessness in our community,” Ms. Hermance said.

Adults may not notice that number, but it’s hard to ignore it in a school. Although the responsibility stands with parents to find help for their families, sometimes school employees can point them in the right direction.

“Having on-staff counselors and social workers that have already built relationships with those agencies — they may be former employees — also gives you an extra in to where the resources are, as opposed to a parent who may not know what direction to go to,” said Tamra Toles Torain, administrative assistant to the superintendent in Caesar Rodney School District.

The community helps as well, with school staff fielding donations from school supplies to books. The day before break started at W. Reily Brown, six families who were “adopted” for Christmas took home gifts and food for the holidays.

“They’re very happy, very excited, very grateful,” school counselor Tasha Turay said. “It’s a very nice day for me — a busy day. I’m burning a lot of calories.”

“We supply a lot of needs that people probably don’t expect and lots of love…(when I first started here) I didn’t realize that schools did so much for people,” she said.

At the end of the day, then, school employees are the first line of defense.

“They see the kids every day. They develop relationships with parents. We depend on our contacts with the school to let us know what their needs are,” Ms. Hermance said.

“It takes partnering with those who are working with children on an every day basis to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to help them.”

Ms. Williams said that she’s proud of Lake Forest for providing for its students.

“I think people tend to look at a school and say, ‘Oh, it’s a good school,’ or ‘Oh, it’s a bad school.’ I think people think a food pantry in a school is a negative thing. But it’s a positive thing.”

“Kids don’t ask to be hungry,” Ms. Williams said. “They’re born into that situation sometimes. They can’t do anything about it.”

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