At first Melissa Leatherwood couldn't understand why some of her students were so lethargic.
"It took me a while to say, very discretely, 'When is the last time you've eaten?,' " said Leatherwood, who works with at-risk students—those with poor attendance, grades or behavior—at Frontier Middle School in Eagle Mountain, Utah.
Leatherwood soon discovered how to get her students, primarily 9th graders, engaged. She would give them a snack. "I get a little food in them and it makes all the difference. They are alert and attentive." she said. "They want to learn, they want to be here. But they can't do it when they're hungry, it's impossible."
Leatherwood said she and other instructors all have "cupboards of food, because the kids are hungry." She stocks granola bars, crackers, popcorn, and sandwich fixings, using her own money to buy the snacks. "I would guess I'm spending at least $75 a month for my kids," said Leatherwood.
In a new survey by the advocacy group No Kid Hungry, 60% of teachers who responded said they routinely dig into their own pockets to buy food for students, spending an average of $300 a year. Three-quarters of the teachers who answered the survey said they see students who regularly come to school hungry, and many indicated just what Leatherwood has observed—that these students have more trouble concentrating, learning, and behaving in class.
The survey also captured responses from students and low-income parents. Students themselves report that not having enough food can impact their studies. Just under half of the low-income students surveyed believe it hurts their performance in school, and 12% say they are sometimes too distracted by hunger at night to do their homework. (Conducted online, the survey drew data from a small size of respondents, including 325 teachers and 500 low-income parents and their children.)
22 Million Children Rely on Free or Reduced-Price School Meals
One in six children in America live in families that struggle with hunger, according to the group, which also found that over 90% of parents surveyed who rely on government food programs are working families. Nearly a quarter of the low-income parents said they sometimes had to cut their children's portions because of lack of food, and almost half said they can't afford enough food every month to meet their family's needs.
No Kid Hungry supports the expansion of school-based food programs, which it sees as the best solution to childhood hunger. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds school meals, 12 million children rely on free or reduced-price school breakfasts and 22 million depend on school lunches. A number of schools also offer after-school and weekend meals. Summer meal programs, such as Kids Cruisin' Kitchen in Omaha, Neb., help fill some of the gap when school is out.
Leatherwood said some of her students do take advantage of free and reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, but she says some "are not getting dinner, so they are always one meal behind."
The teacher said she's hoping to open a food pantry at her school to help with after school and weekend meals. For now, Leatherwood and others at her school will continue to load up on snacks. "I am not in a well-off position financially," she said, "but I have enough and I can make sure these kids have food."