Majority of U.S. teachers see hunger in their classrooms

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As students across the country prepare to go back to school, millions of American families are still feeling the sting of unemployment, rising food and fuel prices, and a sluggish economic recovery. According to a new survey by Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry campaign, teachers are worried that hunger is stunting the learning process. They also point to a healthy school breakfast as key to a good education.

The survey, "Hunger in Our Schools: Share Our Strength's Teachers Report 2012," was conducted among more than 1,000 K-8 public school teachers nationwide. Three out of five teachers surveyed report that they see students regularly come to school hungry because they're not getting enough to eat at home. A majority of these teachers say the problem is getting worse. (The AFT is a partner with Share Our Strength in the fight against childhood hunger.)

"I have had students who have come to school with lunch the previous day having been their last meal," one elementary teacher from the Northeast reported. Another teacher from the Midwest said, "The saddest are the children who cry when we get out early for a snow day because they won't get lunch."

Overwhelmingly, teachers say students have trouble learning when they're focused on their empty stomachs. Hungry students, they say, lack concentration and struggle with poor academic performance, behavior problems and health issues.

"When students are hungry and distracted, they're not learning," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who joined Share Our Strength at a panel discussion to release the survey findings. "To set kids up for academic success, we must make sure they're getting the healthy food they need at breakfast and lunch so they can concentrate in the classroom throughout the day."

School meals play an important role in making sure that, even in tough times, kids still get the healthy food they need. Nine out of 10 teachers agree that school breakfast is especially important for academic achievement. Teachers credit breakfast with increasing concentration, improving academic performance and improving behavior in the classroom. Health is also a major factor, with four in five saying breakfast prevents headaches and stomachaches, leading to healthier students. Teachers also say that students who eat breakfast are less likely to be tardy or absent.

Yet, too many eligible kids are missing out on school breakfast. Of the 20 million low-income students who ate a free or reduced-price lunch last year, fewer than half also ate school breakfast. The No Kid Hungry campaign helps get nutritious food to kids in need, working with schools and communities to increase participation in the national School Breakfast Program.

"Access to healthy food is the No. 1 school supply students need to succeed in the classroom this fall," said Tom Nelson, president of Share Our Strength. "Kids can't concentrate on reading and math when they're focused on their growling stomachs. If we want our youngest generation to grow up smarter, healthier and stronger, we need to make sure they get the healthy food they need every day." [Share Our Strength]

August 23, 2012