Too Hungry to Learn: How to Help Students Facing Food Insecurity

By Barbara Gruener

Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Too Hungry to Learn: How to Help Students Facing Food InsecurityIf you’ve been an educator for any time at all, you’ve probably met this student: Nothing about his physical appearance sets him apart from his classmates, but he never seems to feel well and asks to go to the nurse, complaining of a stomachache or a headache, more often than any of your other students. Behaviorally, he’s frequently restless and is easily agitated by the smallest things. He cries more often than other students his age and can become combative quickly. He fatigues easily, and you can’t help but wonder if he just isn’t getting enough sleep. Statistics, however, tell us it’s more likely that he’s hungry.

According to the organization No Kid Hungry, 1 in 5 children in the United States doesn’t get the food he or she needs. That’s 16 million children like the one described above who are sitting in our classrooms, struggling to take on learning because they’re living in a food-insecure home. So what can a school family do to help?

Making sure that families who can qualify for free or reduced lunch through the National School Lunch Program know that this option is available to them is a great first step. The application for this service is standard in all of my school’s registration packets. If a teacher or other caring adult in our school community suspects that a child is hungry but not yet registered for free or reduced lunch, she talks with our administrative team so we can place a phone call inviting them to apply. And while this can be a sensitive subject, it’s often well received and appreciated.

For the families already on the free and reduced lunch program whose children we suspect might go hungry on the weekend, we partner with a local church and the Houston Food Bank to provide food through Harris County’s Buddy Backpack program. This no-cost, weekly food allotment goes home every Friday afternoon in a backpack that the child returns to school on Monday to be refilled during the week.

Another service that a school can consider is providing a well-balanced breakfast to start the day out right. For just $1.20 (.30 for reduced) at our school, students can enjoy a healthy morning meal to fuel their bodies and minds and launch them into greater learning readiness and productivity during the day.

Snack time is also an important consideration in the classroom. Because many of our students in food-insecure homes are at or below the poverty level, it’s quite possible that these students won’t be able to bring a snack to school every day, if ever. A viable option to avoid this issue is to start a community classroom snack bin. Invite your class families to send in snacks for not only their child, but for a child in need as well. Let them know that you’ll call for more snacks as the bin empties. This will also allow you to make a list of healthier, non-perishable snacks that all students will benefit from and enjoy.

How about soliciting help from local businesses or personal donors? Our rotary is always willing to help us meet needs, as are some of our school’s family members. Not too long ago, we got a phone call from a book club in the community that wanted to help. They put a substantial amount of money into a cafeteria account so that we could cover the meals of students whose accounts were overdrawn. Another time, we received a monetary donation and went to the grocery store to buy some turkeys and all of the fixings, which we were then able to deliver to a few of our families. Yet another time, a local steakhouse adopted three families and invited them in for a holiday meal in honor of their employees. Sometimes all you have to do is ask for assistance.

Do you know where your food pantries are? More importantly, do your families in need know what’s available to them? Make sure to keep an updated list of places in the community that offer assistance handy so that your families can readily access their options for help. Pantries can sometimes help with utilities as well, so enlist someone on your campus to call around to see which services your pantry provides.

If you’re looking for ways to help out food-insecure families, consider one or more of the following options:

  • Host a food drive in partnership with campaigns like SOUPer Bowl of Caring to stack the shelves of a local pantry.
  • Start a giving garden to grow produce to give away.
  • Come up with a creative way to collect funds to donate to organizations like Kids Meals Houston or Feeding America that are helping tackle hunger.

Since many of our food-insecure students don’t have well-balanced diets, we also educate them on healthy eating habits. Consider carving out some time in the cafeteria to talk with all of your students about choosing the recommended portions from each of the five food groups on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food Plate.

You can also help create awareness of the issue and generate ideas about how to help by reading books like The Lunch Thief by Anne Bromley and Maddi’s Fridge by Lois Brandt that target homelessness and hunger.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 32nd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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3 Responses to Too Hungry to Learn: How to Help Students Facing Food Insecurity

  1. This is a great and inclusive list! We also have a program called “Beach Bags” that provides weeekend food in the school system that I work for. We have found great success getting our student leaders (like Student Council Association and NJHS, among other school-based clubs) involved in sponsoring food drives. Currently, we have some amazing staff members organizing food drives to provide larger food baskets for our school breaks. It would be really cool to network with other school systems to share ideas and resources for this topic.

  2. Anne Bromley says:

    Barbara, you give most eloquent descriptions and solutions to this national crisis. Thank you for mentioning The Lunch Thief, which is now in its second printing.

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