Does This Administration Really Think Hungry Kids Can Learn?

Kimberly Yavorski Elementary School

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Mick Mulvaney, Office of Management and Budget Director, spoke last Thursday about the administration’s proposed budget. Among many other things, he addressed after-school programs saying, “They are supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home, get fed, so they do better at school. Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”

Watch the entire video here:

While this statement is actually a bit confusing since the majority of federally-supported after school programs do not provide food for hungry kids (though some may offer a snack), we are led to assume that he was talking about programs such as the National School Lunch Program, a USDA program dating back to 1946 that funds school lunches (and sometimes breakfasts) for students from families below a set income level.

We are hearing more about food-insecurity lately, likely because the problem seems to be increasing. The USDA has determined four levels of food security:

  • High food security (old label=Food security): no reported indications of food-access problems or limitations.
  • Marginal food security (old label=Food security): one or two reported indications—typically of anxiety over food sufficiency or shortage of food in the house. Little or no indication of changes in diets or food intake.
  • Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake.

When we talk about food-insecure people, we are not talking about the vaguely uneasy feeling we have after missing a meal, or after fasting for some reason. We are instead talking about an involuntary lack of food that causes not only discomfort but also illness, weakness and pain.

Today more than 20 percent of U.S. households do not have enough to eat (in some areas it is closer to 25 percent). Too many people are faced with a choice of either eating or putting a roof over their heads. For too many, there is no debate over which extra activity to choose for their kids; there’s not even a discussion about what flavor of ice cream to buy; there are no extras. The food budget may be stretched so thin that portions are significantly smaller than what most of us are used to, or meals may be skipped altogether. In some cases, a single serving may be expected to feed an entire family.

Eating well is expensive. Some families are often forced to sacrifice quality to have enough to eat. Things such as “mustard sandwiches” are the reality in some homes. Items such as pasta and rice are inexpensive, but do not provide all necessary nutrients. For too many families, things such as fresh produce, never mind organic fruits and vegetables, are simply not in the budget. SNAP benefits only go so far, especially when some generic brands are not on the “approved list.” While food banks provide some relief, they often offer a random assortment of things no one else wants.

Performing a simple Google search: “hunger affects learning” reveals several pages of results, many of which provide details on scientific studies (one study spans four years). All of these do in fact demonstrate that hunger has a detrimental effect on education. It is then quite reasonable to draw the conclusion that helping children by providing meals will improve their learning and therefore make for a better, more educated society.

Hunger affects education. This is obvious. Anyone who has been forced to skip a meal has likely noticed a lack of focus and energy as well as general irritability. There may also be physical symptoms such as a headache or stomachache. Imagine that your last meal was not yesterday, but several days ago.

Unlike adults, children’s systems are still growing and maturing. The brain and other organs need proper nutrition. Poor nutrition is linked to iron-deficiency anemia, which negatively affects the development of basic motor and social skills. Severe hunger affects brain development, especially the portion of the brain that controls memory and psychosocial skills such as the ability to interpret and appropriately respond to others’ emotions.

Without proper nutrients, children in particular are more susceptible to colds and other viruses. Repeatedly getting sick and missing school has a detrimental effect on education. Anyone who has attended school knows that each lesson, each year, builds upon the one prior. Children need to master one set of skills before moving up to the next. Therefore, early education is critical.

Repeatedly, studies have shown that federal and state programs to reduce hunger result in improvements in test scores, behavior and attitude. Teachers see the difference.  They can tell when a child has had breakfast and note that it results in increased concentration and academic performance, and a reduced number of headaches and stomachaches. Overall they see healthier and better behaved students. Schools that have introduced a free breakfast program have also noticed improved attendance and fewer behavioral and psychological problems.

Kids who are food insecure are more likely to have behavior problems including hyperactivity, aggression, anxiety, mood swings and bullying. They are more likely to be suspended from school and to have difficulty getting along with others. Food-insecurity also makes it more likely that children will need special education services. Those on the worst end of the spectrum, those classified as “hungry,” are twice as likely to need these services and twice as likely to repeat a grade. Once children start to receive special education services, they tend to stay within the special needs system as long as they attend school, which for too many hungry kids is before completing high school.

While I understand and appreciate the administration’s concern for the single mom with two kids who is struggling to make ends meet, honestly, odds are, she is likely underpaid and is more likely to be a recipient of the program than worrying about paying into it. Feeding hungry kids does help them learn. It improves their health and well-being and takes some of the burden of worry off their parents, making them more productive as well. It also improves the education of the other children in their classrooms. Of course there are demonstrable benefits to feeding hungry kids. You don’t have to look that hard.

About the Author

Kimberly Yavorski

Kimberly Yavorski has four (now adult) children. She has spent most of the past couple decades as a stay-at-home mom and frequent volunteer. In a previous life, she wrote and edited for a technical trade journal. She enjoys writing about life and family, working on a novel, spending time with her husband and taking walks with her dog. Her writing can be found on her . She is also on and .

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