“When I started sixth grade, the other kids made fun of Brian and me because we were so skinny. . . . At lunchtime, when other kids unwrapped their sandwiches or bought hot meals . . . I told people that I had forgotten to bring my lunch. No one believed me, so I started hiding in the bathroom during lunch hour.
“When other girls came in and threw away their lunch bags in the garbage pails, I’d go retrieve them. I couldn’t get over the way kids tossed out all this perfectly good food.” -- Jeanette Walls, The Glass Castle (2005)
Unfortunately, journalist and author Jeannette Walls isn’t the only American student who has struggled with severe, debilitating hunger. According to a recent national survey, 63 percent of teachers surveyed reported an increase in the number of students who regularly come to school hungry.
That number is significant. But does hunger pose any real threats to your students?
Extensive scholarly research affirms that hunger can have many negative effects on your students. Here are a few:
- Hunger can hinder cognitive development. When a child is young, his or her brain develops very quickly. Without the proper amount of protein, nutrients, and energy, the student’s cognitive development may be greatly hindered.
- Hunger can increase behavioral problems. Irritability is often a sign of hunger. Behavior problems that develop as a result of hunger may last for the rest of the child’s life. According to the American Psychological Association, “school-age children who experience severe hunger are at increased risk for the following negative outcomes: homelessness; chronic health conditions; stressful life conditions; psychiatric distress; behavioral problems; and internalizing behavior, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and poor self-esteem.”
- Hunger can affect body image, which can eventually lead to poor health and low self-confidence. Hunger can result in weight loss due to undernutrition. It can also cause weight gain due to malnutrition because when a person is hungry, unhealthy foods seem more appealing—particularly foods that are higher in sugar and sodium. Both weight loss and weight gain due to hunger can have a lasting psychological impact on children.
- Hunger can have long-lasting effects on health. Young children who experience hunger are more susceptible to sickness for the rest of their lives, which means they're more likely to be absent from school.
So what can you do to help?
- Keep a small stash of healthy snacks in your classroom. When your students are hungry, it may be difficult for them to focus on their studies. To help curb your students’ hunger, you may want to provide them with a small snack. Substitute snacks that are high in sugar or sodium with healthier alternatives. For example, Time Magazine suggests replacing Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers with graham crackers, which are much lower in sodium.
- Monitor your students' behavior. Pay attention to how your students respond to different situations. If they seem to be more aggressive, impatient, or cranky than other students, hunger may be to blame.
- If parents are unable to provide substantial food for their children, inform them of the alternatives your school offers. Many schools provide free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch options for students. The majority of these meals meet important nutritional criteria to ensure that students receive the vitamins they need for a healthy body and mind.