02/23/2011

AFT Members Speak Out About Hungry Kids at School

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Four AFT members took the opportunity of a new survey on child hunger to tell their stories of dealing with the growing problem of hunger in the classroom.

"I've had lots of students—not just one or two—come to school and put their heads down and cry" because they hadn't eaten since "lunch yesterday," said Stacey Frakes, an elementary school teacher in Madison County, Fla., adding her voice to those of Ann O'Hara, a school nurse in Syracuse, N.Y.; Margaret Martinez-Ingle, a kindergarten teacher in Pico Rivera, Calif.; and Mary Mitchell, an elementary school teacher in St. Pierce, Fla.

"The only way for kids to get breakfast is to have it here in the morning. They just don't have food," said Martinez-Ingle at a Feb. 22 media teleconference to release the nationwide teacher survey sponsored by the anti-hunger group Share Our Strength (SOS) and the AFT.

The conference call illustrated results of the survey, which shows that two-thirds of U.S. teachers have students who regularly arrive at school too hungry to learn. More than 60 percent of these K-8 teachers say that the problem has increased in the past year. Survey results are available online.

In the poll of public school teachers in urban, suburban and rural communities, 65 percent report that most or a lot of their students rely on school meals as their primary source of nutrition. This reliance is widespread, but it is strongest in urban and rural areas. More than 40 percent of teachers say they believe it is a serious problem that children are coming to school hungry. And 61 percent of the teachers buy food for their students—and pay for it themselves—spending about $25 a month on average.

AFT members taking part in the teleconference did point to one important solution as being vital to students' ability to learn: breakfast programs. In the survey, teachers agreed nearly unanimously (96 percent) that there is a strong connection between eating a healthy breakfast and a student's ability to concentrate, behave well and perform academically.

"A kid who comes to school hungry will never do as well as a kid with a good breakfast," said AFT president Randi Weingarten. "This is not debatable."

Weingarten, who led the media teleconference along with SOS founder and executive director Bill Shore, thanked SOS for spearheading the teacher survey and partnering with the AFT on the No Kid Hungry campaign, which kicked off in November. (See earlier story.)

The AFT president pointed out that all school employees see the effects of childhood hunger and try to do something about it. School secretaries keep food in their desk drawers for little visitors, Weingarten said, while bus drivers stow snacks for riders. "School food service workers put their jobs on the line by feeding children who are hungry," she added, even when they know the kids aren't eligible to receive school meals. "The good news is that this problem, while serious, is solvable."

Shore sees a "huge opportunity" in the bipartisan support for school meal programs by legislators, mayors, governors and school superintendents. Fully enabling these programs, he said, will take "the terrible and unfair burden" off school employees so they can do their jobs educating children.

The AFT website has a collection of resources on combating child hunger. Visit the site and encourage your colleagues and friends to join in the effort and to take the No Kid Hungry pledge. You also can see an AFT video about the hunger survey, which was featured in USA Today. [Annette Licitra]

February 23, 2011