The Hunger

Nov 04 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

When I first started teaching, it was difficult to see the patterns in students’ fights behaviors. At first it just seemed like most of them were fighting most of the time, throughout the school, indoors and out. After awhile I noticed that the stuff they were fighting about differed depending on which day of the week it was. On Monday mornings, there were fights at breakfast in the cafeteria. Kids would try to double up at the serving counter, which would get them yelled at, others would lurk next to the garbage can and grab whatever discards they could get. On Friday afternoons, you’d see kids trying to go through the lunch line twice, and even more kids would lurk at the garbage. They’d stuff the extra pizza in their pants and then cram it into their backpacks when they got back to the classroom. At the beginning of the month it wasn’t so bad. By the end of the month it was like Lord of the Flies. They were eight years old, and they were hoarding food.

I remember a few times growing up when I got so hungry that I couldn’t sit still. The gnawing pangs would seize me and I would need to wiggle a little, change position, to relieve it. I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my stomach. But that only happened a handful of times the whole time I was growing up, and it was never because we were out of food (it was almost always on long road trips). I was seeing this behavior in a couple of kids each day. I could hear their stomachs growling, I could see them clutch their tummies, and I watched them race to the door when I lined them up for lunch.

The unbelievably craptastic fare they were served at lunch is for another blog post, though others have done it much more justice than I ever could, mostly because I didn’t ever take pictures of the food. Anyone who went to the late, lamented David Avenue school and dealt with the fearsome Mrs. Nichol (who made us – gasp – finish our lunch before letting us run screaming to the yard) shares many scary cafeteria food stories with me. But up until early eighties, most school food in California was prepared on-site by people who, by serving them lunch every day for years, developed relationships with the kids – and I think it made a not-very-subtle difference in the quality (and the quantity) of the food we ate.  Thousands of schools have big-ass kitchens with padlocks on the doors, where the ghosts of lunch ladies who were actually cooks drift back and forth with ladles and hotel pans.

In the middle of my second year, a pair of kindergartners somehow got into the playground coaches’ office, and found Coach Jack’s lunch. They ignored the apple and the sandwich and went straight for the Cheetos.  Then, knowing they were hella busted, they hid in the office until the end of recess, when the coach found them. What the rest of us saw was our security guard, Donna, leading two sobbing, orange-faced kindergartners to the office while trying really hard to keep a straight face, because the kids were the only ones who didn’t know they weren’t going to get punished for getting some food and eating it.  My boss Lidia said many times, in many settings, “Don’t fuck with people’s [access to] food.”  I can’t remember what the kindergartners’ consequence was (I think it was something along the lines of “you must hang out with Coach Jack at recess,”) but Lidia sent them each home with a food bag that afternoon and made sure they ate breakfast at school the next morning.

My very first Friday teaching, two arms reached through my door at the end of the school day and dropped two grocery bags in the doorway. The kids started popcorning, jumping up and down singing, “The food bags are here! The food bags are here!” I had no idea what to do with them, didn’t know what they were. I opened them up. Each bag had a 1-pound bag of rice, an aseptic quart of milk, a couple of fruit cups, a can of green beans, and a can of refried beans. I turned it into a raffle and gave away the ten or twelve individual items, then after school went down to the office and found out that I was supposed to pick two kids and give them the food bags, but not to worry – there would be more next week.

Our school site, with its 5 schools and a public library on a single block, comprised the only public buildings in the neighborhood. So our office is where the Alameda County Food Bank made its biweekly drop-offs. Every two weeks (sometimes we were lucky, though, and got 3 drop-offs a month) two pallets would get dropped off, and each of them had about 1000 pounds of food in their wire crates, efficiently packed in paper bags which were folded down and placed in plastic bags, tied at the top. Each bag was a variation on what I took apart in my classroom that first week. Always rice or pasta, always some sort of canned protein, always a canned fruit or vegetable, sometimes milk. We would usually get 5 or 6 bags in our classroom, sometimes (before the holidays) as many as ten. The last week of school each kid would get at least one. I had to keep very careful track of whose turn it was, because there were only a couple of kids who didn’t need them. And since the food bags were nonperishable, many of us kept one or two stashed in our classrooms for domestic emergencies.

I started baking muffins for my students, cramming as many nutrient-dense ingredients and fiber into them as possible, then dumping a package of chocolate chips in to increase the chance that the kids would actually eat them. Periodically throughout my time in East Oakland, we would have breakfast parties on Monday mornings. I’d conduct the morning meeting and get started on a math warmup while they picked the chocolate chips out of their muffins, or carefully wrapped them up for later, or inhaled them and looked around to see if there were more. Then we’d have a peaceful morning and nobody would squirm from hunger pangs. I soon learned to bake extras for siblings, so pretty soon I was making 36 muffins each time.

Any time we had a party, I would bring in my 10-quart stockpot, five pounds of cooked spaghetti and a half gallon of sauce and heat it up. Spaghetti, I found, is universally adored among the third grade set. Didn’t matter if you were fresh in from Mexico, were born in a West African refugee camp, spoke Khmer at home, or had never left East Oakland – everybody loved spaghetti. My twenty kids could put away ten quarts of spaghetti in less than 10 minutes. But there was no way I could keep it up, and feeding 20 people just breakfast once a week, even if breakfast is just a muffin, begins to have a financial impact. I couldn’t mitigate eight or nine years of poor nutrition with a single muffin once a week. I couldn’t keep my twenty students fed enough to do well in school. Neither could their parents. And I could see it in their work.

So I’m here today to talk about a something that is outside teachers’ control, that is hard for the average middle-class American to spot and easy to ignore, and that dramatically affects not just test performance but basic cognition, basic memory function, and basic social development. It’s also our vocabulary word for today:

Hunger: food insufficiency attributable to constrained resources

We cannot improve the academic achievement of American schoolchildren without first solving the hunger problem. Now, less than 1% of American children suffer from chronic, long-term malnutrition, like one would see in a famine situation. These are not the children I am talking about. But millions of American children (during this recession, estimates go as high as 40% in areas like, for example, East Oakland) suffer through multiple periods where there just isn’t enough food in the house to go around.  This kind of hunger is hard to spot if you aren’t looking too closely. Researchers call it food insufficiency.

Feeding America, formerly known as America’s Second Harvest, has a terrific website that actually includes policy recommendations, just in case you wanted to write someone a letter. Here’s their Child Hunger in America Fact Sheet.  They did a great job of interpreting in reasonable English a USDA report, Household Food Security in the United States (2008) (and remember, the recession didn’t really start picking up steam until mid-2008). Please read it. Really quickly: 1 in 6 Americans, and 1 in 4 children, experienced food insecurity in 2008. Let’s do a quick-and-dirty interpolation here: There are six million public school kids in California. One-fourth of that is one million, five hundred thousand kids just in California.

And that was before the recession.

There are mountains, MOUNTAINS, of peer-reviewed studies on the effect of hunger and food insecurity on cognition, behavior, memory, and overall mental health. The vast majority reach the same conclusion: Poor nutrition or inconsistent access to food in the home strongly correlates with cognitive, behavioral and memory deficiencies, with increasing evidence that the damage is permanent. The only thing that’s surprising to me is that there still seems to be room for debate. No, that’s not true. Another surprising thing to me is that the people who are in a position to actually deal with this problem on a national scale are refusing to even seriously address it. Did any of you see any politicians plant their flag on childhood hunger this election season?

Since I respect people who actually cite their sources after making blanket statements, let’s look at what some of the scientists say. Since I respect you, dear reader, I’m going to keep this a high-level overview. If you’re curious, start searching. Type the terms “childhood hunger cognition” into Google and you’ll get over 1.5 million hits, including some good ones that will tell you how to help.

In their article Food Insufficiency and American School-Aged Children’s Cognitive, Academic, and Psychosocial Development, authors Alaimo, Olson & Frongillo (2000) analyzed data from a huge study, the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, specifically focusing on families who “sometimes or often” did not get enough food to eat. There is actually a term for this group: Food-Insufficient Children. I’m going to call them Hungry Kids. These authors found that elementary-aged Hungry Kids had significantly lower math scores than non-Hungry Kids, were more likely to have repeated a grade, were more likely to have seen a school psychologist and were more likely to have a hard time getting along with other kids.  Teenage Hungry Kids were more likely to have seen a school psychologist, been suspended from school and have had difficulty getting along with their peers.

Even adults’ cognition drops off when carbohydrates are severely limited. Kristen D’Anci, in her article Low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. Effects on cognition and mood (2009) found that adults following super-low-carb diets performed worse on memory-based tasks than adults on the weight-loss plan published by the American Dietetic Association. So there you have it. Even in the short term, Atkins makes you stupid.

Hungry Kids can grow up to be slow adults. The University of Michigan studied the effects of childhood malnutrition on cognition in later adulthood, examining elderly Chinese immigrants participating in a longitudinal health study who had lived in China during the first half of the twentieth century, where there was famine after famine after famine, and then a really bloody revolution. The team of researchers, led by Zhenmei Zhang, Ph.D, found that childhood hunger correlated with decreased adult cognitive function: men were 29% more likely, and women were 35% more likely, to have cognitive impairment than people whose long bones did not reveal childhood malnutrition.

The Washington Post recently reported that the hunger problem in the DC schools is such that the district has begun serving dinner at 99 of its 123 schools. Recent census data shows that 43 percent of African-American DC children live at or below the poverty line, and a survey conducted by Gallup for the Food Research Action Center found that 40 percent of DC families did not have enough money for food at least once between 2008 and 2009. Serving dinner in the schools, however, is a Little Dutch Boy move: funding for this little program will eventually dry up, the funding required to scale this program up to the point where it will help on a national scale will cost billions, and serving food to the students will alone not solve the poverty and food insufficiency at home. It also opens the door to making schools responsible for food relief, and once that idea is in place people will be able to blame teachers for the hunger problem also.

People who are unwilling to talk seriously about solving the hunger problem in America but who are willing to fire teachers who work in schools full of Hungry Kids are not interested in improving the state of American education. We’ve heard a lot lately about the increasing concentration of wealth at the very top of the American wealthy. The richest 25 people in the United States have a combined wealth of $463 billion. They could, if they wanted to, get together and throw a bunch of money at this problem until it goes away. Or they could start paying their taxes at the same rates that you and I pay. If they wanted to. But hunger is the red-headed stepchild of causes. Malaria and leukemia and breast cancer are sexier, I guess.

Next week (I promise): how to help, plus more funny.

2 responses so far

  • Naomi says:

    beautifully written.

  • Skaught Wrustle says:

    Well done, Cracker. Really… well done. It’s a bout time we started looking at the fundamental inequities and lack that is the reality of American life for so many. It is important to remember, also, that families receiving general assistance and food stamps face the added hurdle of bureaucracy that can mean no aid if a form is filled out incorrectly or a signature is forgotten. Children in lower socio-economic districts are lucky to find teachers who are aware and able to supplement what may be seriously lacking in the home. Thanks for this post… it is good reminder to so many of us during this season of giving thanks.